Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Downside of Recycling

No matter where you live, you probably are encouraged - if not required - to recycle certain materials that you used to throw into the trash ... things like newspaper, cardboard, glass bottles, plastic containers, and cans (steel or aluminum).  If you live in Germany, you are also required to recycle your "bio" waste - the vegetable peels and other kitchen waste that can be composted.

Now, recycling is a smart thing to do, but it takes a little bit of effort. In the beginning, you had to separate all your recyclables into the various bins at local recycling centers: "glass" went into a specific bin depending on whether it was clear, green, or brown; steel and aluminum cans went into separate bins; and various kinds of plastics had to be recycled separately because of their chemical composition. Separating the various types of materials helped make the recycling effort economically feasible, encouraging waste management firms to invest in recycling technology that would end up paying for itself, or at least making a modest profit.

But people are lazy, and not everyone was good about properly sorting their recyclable material. And so the concept of single-stream recycling was born, in which all the recyclables - glass, paper, plastic, and metals of all colors and sorts - went into a single bin, to be sorted out later by high-tech machines at a materials recovery facility (or MRF).

That's good for people (who don't have to go to the trouble of sorting out their recyclables), but is it good for recycling in general? Probably not.

According to this interesting article, the use of increasingly large all-material recycling bins has tended to drive down the value of recycling because of contaminants which enter the various streams - bits of paper in the glass, melted paper clips and staples in the paper, and so on. This report from NPR provides a bit more information on that issue. The bottom line is that making recycling easier for people makes it less economically attractive for the companies who have to deal with the endless tons of commingled recyclables that can cross-pollute each other and lead to the need to periodically shut down and clean out the befouled recycling machinery.

Recycling is also becoming less attractive in other areas as well. A meme that's been going around the Internet compares the approval rating of Congress with the rate at which its members are recycled (that is, reelected)* ...

It looks as if some of our garbage will keep getting recycled, no matter what.

Have a good day. Recycle wisely.

More thoughts tomorrow.


* The Tampa Bay Times Politifact.com website examined these figures to see if they were accurate. They rated the claim to be true - that although there were small differences in the actual percentages, the point of the meme was judged to be solid.


eViL pOp TaRt said...

Recycling is a bit of trouble; but it's sort of an act of faith. An auto de fe?

Mike said...

We have single stream. I've been to the plant to tour it. They have a can't recycle stream that they haul to the dump too.

Linda Kay said...

We do recycle, but also try to make sure what we keep in the bins is not contaminated. You are right, some people are just lazy, one could say some people are pigs. I'm definitely for more recycling in Washington!