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Does Recycling Help?

By Kirsten Wardman / Feb 23, 17

Are you like me, and you diligently sort your consumables, tins, bottles, and trash into sorted recycling? Well, you may be in for a shock to find that recycling may not be the answer to all of our plastic pollution problems.


For starters, let’s go into a few of the statistics about recycling and overall trash consumption.

Before I start popping any preconceived bubbles you may have about recycling, let me make one thing clear. Between recycling and not recycling, recycling has many merits and is the better option. It’s also still worth the effort to recycle, but there are some facts that aren’t as well known about recycling.

Several studies have shown that when it comes to whether or not recycling is worth while both economically and environmentally, the numbers are not adding up. For starters, its energy intensive sending out trucks to collect the recycled bales and manning the recycling centers. Jobs aside, the prices for recycled goods has declined as the price of oil has dropped since 2012. How is recycling related to oil? Plastic as you probably know is made from petroleum, when that base material drops in price, it makes it cheaper to create the plastic from virgin materials, rather than lower quality recyclables.  With the price of oil now hovering around where it is now, and has been the last 4 or 5 years, it is no longer as attractive to use recycled trash.

The United Nations predicts that in just 2 short decades, the world’s population will require resources from an additional 2 planet Earths to sustain current lifestyles. That doesn’t account for booming middle class populations that are on the rise in massively populated countries like China, Brazil and India. That’s only to maintain. So, it’s clear we need to come up with more, and when there’s more consumption, there’s more waste.

The US has recently, since 2009, introduced a system called Single Stream Recycling. This is a type of trash collection that makes it easier for users to not sort their recycling, and place all recyclable items into a single receptacle for collection to be sorted at the recycling plant.   These items are then sorted in an assembly line plant into their respective trash type. The common types that can then later be sold by the ton are; Aluminum and other metals from tins, glass, PET Plastic ( Polyethylene terephthalate) and paper/cardboard.  

The most valuable of these is Copper, Dry Brite copper  which has a value of $4,000 per ton. On the lower end you’d have the raw trash at $40 per ton. Paper recycled goods have been known to have wild price swings according to outside market influences, many having to do with governmental regulations, or the price of oil.  If you’re interested in geeking out on the price data, the has the prices for all of the marketable recyclables.  

Generally speaking it makes the most sense to recycle tins, metals and paper. These are the easiest to reuse. So where does that leave us with glass, and the dreaded plastic single use plastic bottle? While demand for recycled plastic has increased and is on the rise, the plastic that comes from single stream recycling doesn’t produce the cleanest product.

As efficient as single stream recycling may sound, it doesn’t get it perfect. There are magnets that grab the metals, optical sorters that separate the plastics, milk jug shooters that grab the jugs of that sort by color, and screen filters that get the paper and cardboard. The results however are that in a ton of each supposedly cleaned product, you’ll get junk inside like bottle caps (both metal and plastic) mixed in with paper, tin can lids mixed with the plastic blowing the purity of each bale by as much as 20%. When a manufacturer buys these products, it’s obviously going to affect their production when 20% of the raw material is not usable.

Couple this with wild price swings of some products, and you’ve got the makings of a shaky business model. In one study, it was determined that the price of recycled paper in 2009 was as low as $20 due to the economic downturn, raising a few years later to as high as $115, and then dropping back down to $70. How’d you like to be responsible for budget planning for that business?

For glass, it’s even worse because it is not usable if breaks. That means between the time when you throw it in the bin (I know I’ve heard my bottles break as I chuck them into a recycling bin), from the dumping of the bins into the truck that will transport the bottles to the processing plant, to the single stream line, there are plenty of occasions that the bottles have to break. The notion that glass is a fragile component, we’ve all broken glass at a few times in our lives, may lead you to believe that it would break down quickly. I was personally shocked to find out that glass takes one million years to fully decompose. Think about that, 1 million years and it is even longer in the protected environment of a landfill. How many bottles have you consumed in your lifetime? Multiple that by a million, and then 7.6 billion population and… eek, it’s sending chills down my spine.

Between plastic or glass, go with glass because of the fact that it's infinitely recyclable, just don't break it. 

In reality only 60% of all consumable glass actually makes it to the recycling process where it can be made into high quality products like bottles or fiber glass. The other 40% falls through the process as multi-colored shards that end up as mixture with other waste residues of the process - like our old friend the plastic straw, bottle caps both plastic and metal, and bits of paper. This sludge has no real value and ends up resembling glass about as much as a can of cold gelatinous dog food resembles a filet mignon. Yep, right into the landfill as an added cost for the plant to dispose of and you thought you felt good about the hours per month you spend sorting your trash.

Don’t get me wrong, I do it myself, because it’s better than not doing it by a wide margin. A couple of problems from that magical looking arrows forming an indefinite triangle is that it creates a false sense of - it’s recycled so it’s OK for me to buy this. It’s OK to buy this X because I’ll recycle it, or someone else has already used this and it’s getting used again by me. For plastic, the recycling rate is 7% in the US. We already know that 40% of glass gets lost or broken in the recycling process, and that’s accounting for the 30% of people that actually recycle. What about the 70% of Americans that don’t even recycle at all? That glass will be around for millions of years.

The other stark but absolute reality is that plastic (and its younger cousin, the throw away consumer mentality that dominates our modern world) didn’t exist until 1907. Plastic wasn’t really put to industrial use until World War 2 when the world’s belligerent nations needed an answer to the massive shortage in raw materials. The use of plastic started to explode after that, and of course didn’t end during peace, but was rather amplified due to the efficient and cheap nature it could replace natural materials.

Consider that the Great Pacific Island Patch wasn’t even discovered until 1997 when marine explorer/scientist Dr. Charles Moore encountered it during a trans Pacific yachting race, and you start to get a visualization of where all this world trash build up is actually heading. You also start to see that the process is actually happening at near breakneck speeds.

The human race in its current form has only been on planet earth for 200,000 years, then consider that the earliest forms of recorded human history date back 6,000 years. The earliest civilizations being those of Egypt, Persia and China, all started around the same time. For all those thousands of years, humans consumed everything they needed and for the most part left no processing waste for the daily items they needed to survive. The artifacts that have been left behind were organically made, and naturally preserved. When the hunter, gatherer tribes around the world took what they needed to survive, the only waste may have been a carcass that animals would have scavenged down to nothing. Even the more developed societies of Europe readily consumed what goods they purchased at the local markets without excess processed packaging waste. Grown goods, or baked goods, sold in wooden crates or baskets, and carried off by the buyers in cloth sacks. No pesticides to try and wash off, no plastic wrapping to dispose of. By the 1800’s this was starting to change with technological advances in Europe, the US/Canada, and parts of Asia. After the second world war, with the emergence of America as a super world dominating power, both economically and militarily, things start to change and quickly.


What are your thoughts on recycling? We'd love to your feedback, thoughts or comments on recycling, how to make it better, or whether you even do it at all.


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