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  • Gabriela Cimadevilla

Is Recycling trash?

Updated: Dec 19, 2019

This particular post has taken a while. It’s not because life’s been busy or any other jaded excuse. We just have yet to determine whether recycling, after all the research we’ve done, is even worth it.


For most people, they are completely unaware that (a) they aren’t recycling correctly and (b) it’ll end up in the trash and/or environment. To review point (a), recycling is easily susceptible to contamination. This could be from food that hasn’t been cleaned off as well as materials thrown into the recycling bin that are in fact, not recyclable. The misconception is that the employees of the fine recycling establishment will sort through it and do the dirty work for the optimistic, uninformed consumer. This is false. Imagine rummaging through hundreds, if not, thousands, of items a day to see what can pass and what is off to the landfill.


When you think about it, it’s ludicrous. To clarify, your recyclable items should at least be rinsed off and empty of any organic waste or anything that is considered as wishcycling.

The biggest confusion amongst what can/can’t be recycled is typically revolving plastics. Any type of plastic bag, including ziplocks, supermarket and/or retail bags, straws, snack wrappers, and the thin film that comes wrapped around shipped items can’t be recycled through a commercial recycling facility. In fact, these tend to clog the recycling machines and slow down production.


Which segues us into our next point, (b), it’ll end up in the trash regardless. Whatever is contaminated and comes into contact with other recyclable items, will do the obvious. It’ll contaminate those as well, thus ensuring that it immediately goes to the landfill.

Considering that we will live in a linear economy, all materials whether glass, paper, aluminum or the infamous plastic will result in a landfill. The question isn’t if, but when? Asking and fully understanding this question is what will help us shift our behavior, closing the loop of insurmountable waste and putting a circular economy into praxis.

Which is where things get really tricky. Moving towards a circular economy has its hurdles. But saying “it isn’t easy” is another excuse as to why we shouldn’t do it; an avenue we want to refrain from exploring.


Unfortunately we give ourselves a lot of reasons as to why we “can’t” reduce our consumption habits, naturally increasing dependence on recycling. These reasons are then supported by the notion that the packaging with a little number inside the "recycling symbol", known as resins, aren’t wasteful and will be responsibly disposed of. Let’s elaborate on resins.


The numbers for resins range from 1-7. They are typically imprinted on the bottom of containers such as our bottles and bags and are found within the triangular pattern of arrows, mistakenly referred to as the recycling symbol. What this little assigned number means is that the container is a thermoplastic. Suggesting that it’s malleable and can *possibly be used again for a future item. This doesn’t mean, however, that it is 100% recyclable nor available for recycling at your local recycling center. Glass, aluminum, and paper will pretty much always be a no brainer and easily recycled. As for plastic, the numbers that are typically recyclable are the following:


#1 - PET

#2 - HDPE

#4 - LDPE

#5 - Polystyrene


Each of them have a different composition and rank differently in how safe they are to use, especially when suspected to higher temperatures or exposed to foods. LDPE is also more difficult to recycle since they tend to be thinner more flimsy materials, such as plastic grocery bags. HDPE is another type of plastic commonly used for grocery bags or plastic lining.


Now, to clear the air, recycled plastic items will still require virgin petroleum based resources (since plastic comes from oil) to form that same material again. For example, a PET plastic water bottle will be recycled into another water bottle, but only so much of that same plastic can be used before requiring the need for virgin plastics once again, harvesting new oil and having comparable outputs of energy & emissions, perpetuating the cycle.


Does this qualify as green washing? Since some would say the recycling industry is prolonging the waste process and doing more harm than good for the environment? Especially when we factor in the transportation of it between countries and energy it takes to harvest these materials in the first place.


Here’s what we know.


Energy levels from a successful recycling system are positively impacted. In 2014 about 322,000 GWh of energy were saved. Most of those savings coming from recycled metals which is enough energy to provide electricity to 30 million homes.


We also know that the recycling industry has always been regarded as a profitable one, making money while tickling participators green hearts—and it’s currently failing. A prime example is from August of 2019, when San Francisco’s recycling centers shut down, laying off a total of 750 employees. This is amongst a 5th of recycling centers that have closed in California this year alone. But, why?


At the end of 2017 China banned imports of recyclable materials on an international scale, referring to it as the National Sword Policy. This would affect all western countries using China as their dumpster. Closing off the recycling doors for most items would drastically impact the world that once abused this luxury. Although we still outsource our recyclable items to 3rd parties located in other parts of Asia like Thailand and Indonesia, we still have felt the repercussions of our actions. We’re stumped trying to figure out what to do with this abundance of recyclable materials.


Then of course, another question is proposed. If we have this surplus in this profitable, why are centers shutting down? Wouldn’t recycling centers be ecstatic with all the recyclables they could make a buck off? Simply put, the value of these items has also dropped. Before the National Sword Policy, items like aluminum and certain plastics were higher in value because they could yield more and were, therefore, worth more to invest in. They’d be bought and recycled. Aluminum and glass can be used infinitely, being a no brainer to recycle. Yet, these items are bouncing from one recycling center to the next, being denied because they’ve reached capacity, don't have enough funding and cannot afford to use it…


Then, after a lot of indecisiveness it goes to the landfill…

or our oceans.


Another reality that is no longer deniable is the plastic pollution that has been infesting our oceans and waterways since its boom in the 1950's; also a direct result of our irresponsible waste system. Which has lead to a lot of active bans of single-use items, specifically plastic. Sparking the conversation of how effective this will be in comparison to other ways of moderating this issue. Although this is a critically grey area, what we can confidently confirm is that with a booming population, businesses and politicians who shrug at environmental concerns are only going to press the bandage that is recycling. No matter how old, used, and foul smelling the bandage gets, they’ll insist that it works instead of forcing the reformation of ethical business practices and packaging laws. They’ll “reinvent” the recycling industry by somehow demanding more of a value to certain recyclable items, specifically plastic, repeating the 1980’s when recycling first started settling its bins on our curbside. They’ll side with the billion dollar petroleum industry and bias think tanks, polluting our world and call it sustainable.

If we had less people inhabiting this planet and more dependable recycling systems, or if we completely eliminated plastic from the picture, allowing the real recyclables to take the show (aluminum, glass, paper) then it could probably work. Encouraging everyone to recycle, with plastics in practice the way they are today, is only prolonging the process it takes to become another item in the trash, enabling our dependency on non-renewable fossil fuels. It’s a short cut, a bad one that continues to replenish the pockets of the lobbyists behind this mess.


Speaking of financials, of course not everyone has the same access to an eco-friendly means of living. But with higher participation in communities who do have this option, it will then trickle down. Becoming available to others while providing a greener world. By empowering ourselves, we are empowering others. Asking those who are in a place of status or affluence to invest their dollar into a more sustainable future is a start. There are many prospective alternatives to the continued dependence on plastic that are still in their beginning phases. To advance, they need development and to develop, they need funding. So the real question becomes, how do we financially incentivize a true circular economy?


Although we can’t answer that question right now, we’re happy to provide examples of thriving industries developing alternatives to plastic. Click either of the links below to learn of the different efficient materials on the path to replacing petroleum based plastic, ethically harvested, and easily compostable.


https://ecovativedesign.com/

https://algotek.net/

https://www.pappcoindia.com/


Citations:


https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2019/03/china-has-stopped-accepting-our-trash/584131/

https://e360.yale.edu/features/piling-up-how-chinas-ban-on-importing-waste-has-stalled-global-recycling

https://www.americangeosciences.org/critical-issues/faq/how-does-recycling-save-energy

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