Recycling's Good for Business
Recycling: the process of taking something old and turning it into something new. Recycling has been a boon to many industries through lower cost of raw materials, and new supply chains resulting in more options and opportunities. Taking materials which were otherwise destined for the landfill, are instead turned into marketable goods and sold for profit. The economy benefits, people save money, and mother nature's happy too.
All sorts of things are recycled all the time. Everyone knows of the food and drink containers that get picked up at curbside, while automobiles and even old buildings are recycled. Many times disposing of used materials as trash can be expensive, and so will happily give them away for free. Everyone likes free stuff, and free stuff you can sell, well that's even better. One person's trash is another one's treasure.
Recycling seems like a straightforward no-brainer, so what's the issue? Don't worry, this isn't an article that's going to nag you to put your cardboard out to the curb, or to take your bottles back to the depot. Although I am one of those people, I'm going to spare you that nag, and talk about how recycling isn't the one-size-fits-all solutions to household waste.
Grocery and convenience stores these days are filled to the rafters with plastic, glass, and aluminum drink and food containers. There are still cans made of good old fashioned steel, but even those are likely plastic lined these days. The majority of these containers are recyclable, and many of use dutifully bluebin these containers on a regular basis to do our part saving the planet, and to save a few bucks on our garbage bill. Yay for us we're heroes!
There's a Gap in the Story
Hold on, do you actually know what happens to that recycling after it's been collected from your heroic bluebin on the street corner? .... ..... ......... For the sake of argument, let's assume that you don't.
Largely it depends on your region, but I'm going to generalize. The first thing to know is that not all recyclable materials are created equal. Some are very easy to recycle, and some less easy. Of recycled materials, glass and metals are the best. Just melt them down, whoosh away the muck that doesn't belong, and boom you've got an as new whatever. Some regions even skip the melting and simply clean and relabel your glass bottles. Glass and metal can be melted and made anew over and over, without any drop in quality of the material. Plastic. Plastic is where the problem is.
What's Wrong With Plastic?
Plastic for decades has been the wonder material. It's cheap, easy to work with, versatile, strong, flexible, you name it. Plastic can do things that so many other materials can't, and it can be recycled. The problem with plastic is that there's not just one kind, and some are more recyclable than others; some plastics simply cannot be recycled, and are instantly waste.
One might say ok, let's just switch everything over to the recyclable plastics. That's a good and noble idea but there's a catch; where glass and metal can be melted and recycled indefinitely, not so with plastics. Even the best quality food grade plastics, are not suitable for recycling to the same purpose even one additional time. Nearly, if not every last bit of plastic you recycle. will ever serve its same original purpose.
So Where Does it Go?
For many regions, even in developed economies, there are no actual facilities for doing anything with the plastics you turn in. Up until the last few years from time of writing, most collected plastic was actually sold to China for processing. China's need for low quality material then dried up, and regions around the world were stuck with stacks and stacks of plastic.
In regions with more developed recycling operations, the outlook hasn't been as bad. Plastics such as Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) and High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE) are recycled into products such as fleece for clothing, and lumber for patios and boardwalks. There are many uses for recycled plastics, just not their original purpose.
This Might Be a Problem
If plastics may not be recycled for their original purpose, then new plastic will always be in demand. The new plastic will be used and then recycled into something different. Sounds fine except that it relies on a never ending market for low-quality plastics. What happens when there are ten new fleece sweaters, but only one person needs one. What happens when we already have nice patios and boardwalks. A fleece sweater can last decades for some people, and boardwalks as well. Can we really come up with new uses for all this plastic?
Food is a constant that you can always rely on for consumer demand. The current go-to for packaging that food is plastic, ensuring a constant and continuous demand for new plastics. If recycling cannot find uses for that plastic, then it has nowhere to go but the landfill.
Landfills Aren't That Bad...Right?
It should be obvious but it's an often understated fact that landfills do fill up. When a landfill nears capacity, a new location must be found. The blunt truth however is that no one is going to sign up for a new landfill in their backyard; add to that all the environmental concerns, and you find new landfills often facing significant resistance from local residents. Anytime we can keep something out of a landfill, it's a win for everyone no matter if you're a tree-hugger or not.
Let's not forget also that once that fleece sweater is worn out, it's the end of the road. If that patio has seen better days, it's landfill time for you. No matter what, at some point all recycled plastics will meet the landfill reaper.
Plastics as we've seen, will inevitably end up in a landfill (or worse); the same is not true of glass and metals. If we're to save ourselves from mountains of plastic everywhere, we need materials that can be recycled until the end of time. This is where you come in.
Recycling needs our help. If we don't do something about the plastics, then all our diligent recycling is for nothing in the end. We need to shift all our consumable materials into those that can be recycled indefinitely. For many this will simply mean using glass or metals in the place of plastics. There are some cases of course where the wonder material plastic is still the best option, in which case we need a plastic type which can recycled indefinitely, or we need a new option.
What Can I Do?
The easiest thing anyone can do is to simple reduce the amount of goods purchased that involve plastic. If you have a choice between two products, choose the one in a glass or metal container.
Don't forget about good old fashioned reuse. While plastic cannot be easily recycled, it is long-lasting and durable, and may be reused numerous times before wearing out. Reuse your plastic bags; reuse that food container; refill that drink bottle.
If you must use a plastic container, stick to clear and white containers while avoiding coloured ones. Clear and white containers are more valuable as a recycled good as they can be more easily dyed to another colour.
What Should be Done?
Now for the big ask. While there are ways we can reduce the impact of our excess plastic, it's never going to be enough unless we make a change. We must outlaw or significantly limit the use of non or less easily recycled plastics from our supply chain. If a plastic container can be made such that it may be recycled indefinitely, it is welcome; if not then that plastic container must be replaced with a fully recyclable alternative like glass or metal.
Government can make a wholesale change like this, so spread the word. Educate them on the dangers of overflowing landfills, and political risks that come with it. If you spread the word, the will will follow.
If you're a manufacturer or distributor that uses a plastic element or container in your business, consider a glass or metal alternative. Plastic is easy and inexpensive, but recycled glass and metal can be cost effective too. I'll bet switching to a sustainable material is something your marketing team could put to good use as well.
What happens next remains to be seen. The biggest trouble is the "that's not my problem" mentality. Landfill lifespans are often on the order of decades or more, so a politician in their 60's isn't worried about being on the job when it fills up. I personally would rather see effort to clean a mess, rather than make one worse. While I am concerned about the future we're leaving for my children, I'm just as concerned about the here and now. What kind of people are we if we decline to fix a problem, when we have the power to do so. Spread the word, reduce or eliminate use on non-recyclable plastics, and pat ourselves on the back for stopping something before it gets worse.
You could say "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", but I'd rather not wait until it's broke.