Why The Recycling Farce Doesn’t Have To Continue

Credit: Jonathan Cutrer, FlickrCCRecycling household materials was first introduced back in the 1970s. We were told that the purpose was to reduce waste and preserve our landfills. One by one, families dutifully lined up to learn about recycling codes and curbside programs. Some 50 years later, it is evident that curbside recycling is a farce. Yet it doesn’t have to continue to be this way.

If we are ever to end the farce, we must first be honest about the state of household recycling. Here’s an alarming truth many people do not know: more than 90% of all plastic waste ends up in landfills. That includes plastics tossed into kerbside recycling bins. Despite our best efforts to participate in recycling, those materials are thrown away with the rest of the rubbish.

That may be a bitter pill to swallow, but swallow it we must. Just as we cannot allow safety warning signs to paralyse us with fear to the point of inaction, we can’t let the reality of the recycling farce prevent us from doing something about it.

Why the Problem Exists

Blame for the current recycling mess is aplenty. We can point fingers at quite a few people and organisations. But the bottom line almost always returns to the same thing: money. That may be another bitter pill to swallow, so grab a gallon of water if it is. Like it or not, money makes the world go around.

In order for consumer recycling to work, the bill has to be paid. We already know how much trouble the government has doing that. Indeed, deficit spending and government go hand in hand. So if they aren’t going to pay the bill, who will? The obvious answer is the private sector. But there is a problem here, too. There is not enough money in recycled materials.

The private sector has to make enough money to cover its costs and put some profit in the bank. If profit is not forthcoming, there is no incentive to engage in business activity. So if companies can’t make money recycling, they aren’t going to do it. We can complain all day long about the morality of the profit motive but complaining does not change the facts.

China Says ‘No More’

The world used to be able to offload a sizeable percentage of its plastic waste to a China willing to buy it. But a few years ago, China stepped up and said, ‘no more’. They refused to continue to be the world’s plastic waste dumping ground. So what do we do with the many tonnes of plastic we used to ship overseas? We bury it in the ground.

Even before the China debacle, consumer recycling was not the magic pill everyone assumed it was. We were still throwing tonnes of plastic in the ground even while we were shipping a lot of it to China. Once again, cost is the main culprit.

Processing Recyclables Is Expensive

The main issue of cost boils down to processing. Frankly, processing recyclable materials is expensive. And here’s bitter pill number three: it is expensive primarily due to labour costs. Recyclable processing is primarily a manual exercise. The people who do it have to be paid.

Perhaps you’ve seen pictures or videos of community recycling centres staffed with workers sorting usable materials from junk. Once separated, the usual materials generally have to be sorted again. All of this takes time and effort. All of it costs money.

Government recycling programmes and private-sector recyclers alike have to charge a hefty price to cover their costs. But no one is willing to pay it. Virgin plastic is a whole lot cheaper. Now, the government could mandate that companies buy recycled materials first, but that would devastate the plastics industry. Whenever you take from one hand to feed the other, you create as many problems as you solve.

There Is a Solution

So far, this post has been almost entirely negative. But let us not end the discussion here. There is something positive we can talk about: a real solution. That solution is to change the way we manufacture and use recyclable materials.

Glass and paper are pretty straightforward. They are easily recycled as-is. The real problem is plastic. At the root of that problem is the fact that we mix plastics with different kinds of plastics in such a way as to make processing cost prohibitive. Sometimes we even mix plastics with paper and glass.

Take the paper coffee cup. As you probably know, paper is not impervious to water. The only way to make a paper coffee cup waterproof is to line it with something. That something is plastic. Separating a plastic liner from a paper cup requires a very expensive process that, in the end, is not worth the price paid.

Single Plastics for Single Purposes

The solution to the recycling problem is as simple as single plastics for single purposes. It already works in the industrial sector. In fact, industrial plastic recycling is a very profitable business. There are companies all over the world engaged in it.

They can make money because they work with ‘clean’ plastics. For the record, clean plastic is a plastic that is not intermingled with any other material. A good example is the plastic storage totes you might have in your garage at home.

A plain storage tote is not mixed with any other types of plastic. It is a single plastic material. As such, recycling it requires no sorting or processing. You simply put it in a shredder and sell what comes out the other end. Any type of clean plastic can be recycled by reducing it to smaller pieces that can be combined with virgin plastic to make new products.

PET is another clean plastic that is easy to recycle. If we made and utilized all of our plastics in the same way we do PET, we could all but eliminate the need for costly sorting and processing. We could actually make plastic recycling profitable. And once you make it profitable, you all but guarantee its success.

Consumer recycling is a farce at this stage. But it doesn’t have to continue to be. If we make a few fundamental changes to how we produce and use plastic, we can effectively recycle it. The question is this: do we have the will?