Recycling - the silver bullet we need?
Is recycling actually working?
What products are recyclable?
What products DO get recycled?
How can we make more conscious choices about what we buy?
My aim is to get us asking these questions so we can do better to balance our environmental impact.
TLDR; Absolutely not.
Why not? Let's rationalize.
Recycling takes waste product and breaks them down into building blocks for new products. In an ideal world if you take an aluminium can and recycle it you should be able to make a fresh can from it. However, what we throw away, contains a significant amount of impurities, Inks, MLP (Multi-Layered Plastics), paint, rust and remaining organic waste. This makes it significantly harder to obtain the same fresh aluminium that was used to make the can in the first place. Recycling is a huge process that spans multiple economic systems. In order for recycling to be successful in its goal of being better for the environment all these cogs in the machine need to be turning buttery smooth.
That half-eaten yoghurt cup you threw in the recycle bin and felt good about it? Is probably not going to get recycled at all, Chances are that protective foil which multi-layered maybe still stuck on it and the leftover yoghurt is now a mini Petri dish for bacteria. No, there aren't people that clean each and every piece of plastic going into the trash and then to a recycling plant.
Glass bottles and cans with labels? Labels need to come off and cleaned before being thrown in the bin.
Why is all this important? We're going to dig into what actually happens to these materials when we throw them and what the recycling process is.
What is recyclable?
Your 4 big shot recyclables are glass, forms of paper, metal & plastic.
Other materials include tires, textiles, batteries & electronics. However, these are more complex and generally need specialized recycling centres to handle them. They cannot be dumped into bins at home or into recycling bins on the street.
These specialized centres have qualified staff to dismantle and handle toxic materials like mercury that you'd find in thermometers or lead from car batteries.
The best practice is to inquire online about recycling centres in your locality for these 'tough to handle' items. If they do end up in the recycle stream, they are either separated and taken to specialised facilities or more often than not - to the landfill!
How does it work? (Or how is it supposed to work?)
We start at the source, waste either comes from us (domestic) or from the industry (industrial). The 3 main types of collection are curbside, source and drop-off/buyback
Curbside Collection - is basically the bins you find on your streets. At a minimum, there should be 2, one for wet waste (organics and compostable material) and two for all recyclables. The more bins there are the more specialized they are in handling recyclables separately, that is, paper, metal, glass & plastic.
Source Collection - Happens at your home, apartment complex, or gated community. If all works well this method creates the purest form of recyclate and reduces costs for sorting further down the line. However, this requires behavioural changes and educating the public to ensure waste is not cross-contaminated.
Drop-off/Buyback - Both differ from each other a little but are the same when it comes to a consumer dropping off clean recyclate material. This reduces the cost of segregation and cleaning significantly. Buyback centres simply provide more incentive for example companies are willing to buyback used beer bottles for a nominal price. The problem with this method is that there is an inconsistent supply of material which makes it hard to sustain the business model.
Once we have collected the material in whatever fashion. It's all transported to appropriate Material Recycling Facilities (MRFs)
MRFs are of 2 types - single stream & dual-stream. Dual-stream has two conveyor belts where the paper is separated from the other recyclables before getting on the conveyor belt. Single stream just has all the recyclables dumped on to one conveyor belt to be sorted by machinery.
recycling a certain material should yield a fresh supply of the same material that can be fed back into the production process. This would mean that an aluminium can could be melted down and formed into a new can that retains all of it's original physical and chemical properties. However, we don't live
in a perfect world and for most recyclate material there exists A LOT of impurities that diminish the quality of recyclate and therefore its final recycled product. Certain materials are harder to recycle and require more energy than compared to obtaining the same raw material. Often recyclate plastic and metal are mixed with its virgin material to give you what they call 70% recycled plastic, this is true for most recyclable materials.
We'll look at the recycling process, to begin with, and then assess the feasibility of recycling certain materials and products.
We start with the easy things that you definitely cannot recycle. Of course, mileage varies depending on where you reside and what recycling programs they have etc. Nice idea to check!
Wet Waste (food, dirty diapers, pet waste & anything with a 'yuck' factor)
No tangling items (garden hoses, ropes, leashes, FAIRY LIGHTS & chains)
Medical Waste (seems pretty self-explanatory?)
Certain household items (shower curtains, clothing, shoes & furniture
glass bottle by Olivier Guin from the Noun Project
can by Musmellow from the Noun Project
plastic bottle by Juan Pablo Bravo from the Noun Project
Clothes by Claire Jones from the Noun Project
Electronics by Jaro Sigrist from the Noun Project
Battery by Cimrin Gonzales from the Noun Project
tires by Nikita Kozin from the Noun Project