Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Recycling: Myths and other Important Facts

by Donnie R. Dann

Nowadays most households recognize the importance of recycling and try to minimize their trash. We conscientiously place newspapers, most plastics (numbered 1 through 5), corrugated containers, aluminum cans, etc. in recycling bins, confident these items are again made into usable products. (Plastic #6, such as expanded polystyrene, and polyethylene or film can be separately recycled). Sustainable Business reports that in the United States waste ending up in landfills has declined from 94% of total waste generated in the 1960's to just over 54% in 2009. Yet we recycle at a rate of about half of what is recycled in Germany.

Consider, if 100% of a single Sunday run of the New York Times were recycled we could save over 75,000 trees a year and in total we throw away a billion trees worth of paper a year (Recycling-Revolution). Shouldn't we do better?

Raising awareness and urging more people to recycle is part of it. Just as important is that some items that go into the bin never get recycled! The reason is economics. Take one commonly recycled material, old newspapers. In the past 15 years the market price for waste newsprint has fluctuated from as much as $200 a ton to as little as $5 a ton. Today it's at $160 per ton but if it falls below $40 it's uneconomical for a recycler to even buy it and the eventual destination for your newspapers is still a landfill.

Another limitation on is that a recycler can't work with contaminated articles. If people are careless with what they throw in the bin and food or other stains foul the item(s) they'll still be sent to a landfill. To be returned to the manufacturing stream the raw material must be near perfect.

Some things are just not recyclable, like ceramics and aseptic products such as the material used in manufacturing juice boxes.

Sorting is another little known aspect of recycling. In Highland Park, where I live, the permitted recyclable materials are placed in a single bin. Compared to Switzerland, “there are bottle banks at every supermarket, with separate slots for clear, green and brown glass (all of which must be separately recycled - edit). Every town has a free paper collection once a month, and that does not mean just old newspapers; most people separately recycle everything made of cardboard or paper, from cereal packets to old telephone bills.” (The BBC) In most places in the U.S. it's the recycler that sorts each kind of material to sell it profitably, a much more costly process.

In a recent poll by Perception Research Service only 38% of consumers believe they should be responsible for recycling packaging materials. In contrast to the attitude by a majority of western Europeans it appears American shoppers expect the manufacturer to produce eco-friendly packaging and they shouldn't have to pay for it!

Bottom line; we have a long way to go for really efficient recycling to take hold, including sorting as it occurs in many countries. It obviously must be a community wide effort to be effective. Meanwhile we can all diligently separate as much as possible, make sure everything is clean, and be mindful – first reduce, then reuse and finally recycle.

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