The Missing Link: How We Can Better Reduce, Reuse and Recycle
If you’ve ever moved from one city to another, or between countries, you may have noticed that what is allowed in your recycling bin often changes with the move. So what makes a plastic yogurt tub recyclable in one place but not another?
Why can some cities, like London, take virtually all rigid plastic containers, while many in the United States only recycle plastic bottles?
The answer lies in the type of recycling processes that local recycling plants (called Material Recovery Facilities, or MRFs) use to separate and process recyclables. This video shows how MRFs often work. To summarize: each individual facility has a different configuration of machines and people to sort recyclables into their individual materials, including plastics and glass, so they can be sent to a manufacturing facility for reuse.
It’s the type of machines in a MRF that dictates which materials can be processed for recycling. Any materials sent to a city’s MRF for recycling must meet the MRF’s standards for material quality.
This has led to confusion, worldwide, about what actually makes something “recyclable.” Perhaps one of the most pervasive examples in the United States and Europe is the plastic bag.
The plastics industry will tell you that plastic bags are recyclable, and they aren’t wrong—they are indeed made out of different types of plastic that can be melted down and reused. However, if you visit the website for your city’s recycling program, you will likely see that they do not take plastic bags in their recycling program.
This is because of the way that MRFs process materials. Many use air or water classifiers to separate items by density and weight, moving lighter materials (like paper) into one process, while sending heavier items, like bottles, cans, and glass, through another.
It is extremely difficult to separate paper and plastic bags mechanically because they act similarly in many recycling processes. In addition, plastic bags jam up common recycling machinery, causing costly downtime in the plants.
Plastic bags are just one example of a much larger sustainability problem: the manufacturing, recycling, and composting industries rarely coordinate or work together to ensure that products can be recycled or composted, and most countries do not have regulations to ensure that products are developed with their end-of-life disposal in mind.
For example, the United Kingdom has extensive producer responsibility laws for packaging that encourage producers to make all of their packaging recyclable by applying economic incentives. However, in the United States, these laws are almost non-existent, resulting in an innumerable variety of material types and products that cannot be recycled and must be sent to the landfill.
There are many instances where companies change their packaging to seem more “green,” while actually making their packaging significantly less recyclable. One example of this phenomenon is the emergence of bioplastics (plant-based plastics).
Biodegradable plastics are often the worst of both worlds. The plant-based plastics can’t be recycled with regular plastics, and the vast majority of MRFs cannot separate traditional plastics from plant-based plastics to recycle them. Biodegradeable plastics don’t actually degrade any faster than most other plastics, and cannot be composted.
“Compostable” plastics are slightly better, but most were only tested in a lab. While they composted perfectly well in a lab setting, they often do not compost as quickly as necessary in large-scale composting processes, leaving small pieces of plastic in the finished compost of these facilities.
While the world has made progress in recycling and reusing what was previously burned or buried, there is still significant opportunity for greater sustainability in packaging and product design. The explosion of marketing that promotes “being green,” and the growing number of symbols on products that label them as “compostable,” “biodegradable,” or “recyclable,” leaves consumers stuck in an ever-evolving world of mixed messages about how to dispose their waste.
It is critical to have greater coordination between the recycling and manufacturing industries to ensure progress toward wasting less and reusing more. Regulators must facilitate this coordination to truly ensure that products can double as resources that can be recovered at their end-of-life stage.
Recovering resources from items we throw away is essential to creating a sustainable world, and it can only be done with the collaboration of manufacturers, recyclers, and regulators.
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Image credit: Flickr/Mojave Desert
Post written by Kristen Watkins. Follow Kristen on Twitter at @kwat89.