When we recycle, we feel good. But when we think about what may be happening once the recyclables get picked up, we feel a little less sure of what happens next. When we see a news story about some things we thought were recyclable ending up in landfills or worse in the natural environment, we begin to question the whole idea. The recycle headline seems to fall short of the actual story we see play out. The system is hard to fully understand so we tend to abort and revert back to feeling good when we recycle pushing the reality we know exists into the darker corners of our minds.
At one point, recycling was more consumer dependent. The consumer had multiple bins to sort waste prior to pick up—glass bin, can bin, paper bin etc. Generally speaking, recycling rates with the burden on the consumer to sort was low. To increase participation, single stream recycling was rolled out. Recycling rates increased as the consumer benefited from only two choices—trash or recycle.
Single steam recycling pushes the sorting burden to the processing centers to separate the incoming materials. The goal of sorting is to gain the purest possible bale per material type in order to re-sell it. The purer the bale, the more likely it is to sell.
In the last twenty years, materials to recycle have increased in amount, varied more widely in physical make-up and have been increasingly in a plastic and/or flexible direction. By example, raisins were packed in boxes and now are found in stand-up pouches. Ketchup was packaged in glass bottles and is now in plastic containers. Eggs were in cardboard crates and are now in rigid plastic packaging. There are many more examples.
Sorting the variety of materials is no small task. I recently visited a local recycling processing center. Mountains of recyclables are fed through conveyor belts and various sorting mechanisms. At the end, the materials were separated in general types. While some bales appeared to be purer (paper bales), others appeared more mixed. Mixed bales have limited value.
The pollyanna idea of recycling is that all discarded items will turn into something else. This is what we likely think. The reality falls short of that ideal picture. Some materials are not recyclable, some recyclable material is not easily recycled and the infrastructure to support all recyclable items is not fully developed. This mix of factors creates confusion, mistrust and holes in the recycling system.
Some possible answers:
- Investment in recycling infrastructure to handle the non-easily recycled products
- Design products with materials that are recyclable and can be handled by recycling centers.
- Instead of referring to a product that is recyclable or not recyclable, we refer to it as how circular it is.
When we say recycle, we really mean we want the product to be circular in nature and stay in the economy. Linear products are made, used and disposed of in landfills. Circular products are made, used and collected to be used to make other things. The material make-up, ease of collection, ease of processing and market for the material once collected and sorted all contribute to its circularity. Communicating the circularity of a product or package would further educate the consumer, place additional demand on manufacturers to make more circular products and ultimately do what the word “recycle” was meant to do from the start.
For example, a small candy wrapper is most likely recyclable but the package is so small, there is no value in its collection. Most wrappers are thrown away. Yes, the wrapper is technically recyclable. However, disposal is likely linear as we throw it out to a landfill. A candy wrapper is not likely circular.
- Request recycled content in products. If we are not buying recycled content, we are not recycling. In other words, if we buy based on the item containing recycled content , the manufacturer will be forced to but the recycled material from processors who in turn will seek out sources for recyclables. The demand will drive supply and investments throughout the supply chain.
- Narrow the price gap between virgin and recycled content resins. With an oil glut pushing more chemical petrochemical companies to shift towards plastic, virgin resin has become very cheap. It will be hard for recycled resins to take a stronghold on the market until the cost differential is reduced or eliminated.
Clear View Bag stocks three materials that are more circular than traditional films. Certified compostable material is composted at the end of life to grow other things. Biobased material is made from plants and is recyclable at the end of life. Post Consumer Recycled (PCR) content is made from consumer waste and is recyclable at the end of life.
A strong recycling system can symbolize the best environmental option to reduce waste (by using it to make other things), reduce environmental pressures (greenhouse gas emissions) and contribute to the larger availability of resources (reuses existing materials). A strong recycling system is a circle as things get used over and over. The circularity of the product is what is most important.
A highly circular item is easily and readily recycled. A highly recyclable item is not necessarily circular.
Circularity is likely what we really think of when we say and participate in recycling.
Maybe it is the word we should start using.
Thanks for reading! Trent