Is Recycling Worthwhile?

Hi Bestest of Buddies!

I hope you’ve been able to enjoy some walks by the lake to enjoy this splendid Fall weather!

This week, I read an article. It claims that recycling isn’t really cost-effective, and that the companies that make new plastic have misinformed the public about this fact in order to make consumers feel better about using plastic. This brought to mind conversations that I’ve had with people in the past, who had heard that the plastic you put in the recycle bin just gets thrown in the landfill in the end — so why bother.

The article brings up some great points that I want to discuss with you. But it also oversimplifies the situation. I don’t have a ton of time tonight, but I want to take a minute to describe the system to the best of my current understanding.

A lot of recycling gets collected in cities via a “single-stream” system, where consumers place all their paper, plastic, glass, and metal recyclables into the same bin on the curb. This makes recycling easier on consumers — they don’t have to take these items to a collection facility themselves — so a lot more recyclables are probably collected than otherwise would be. But in order to actually recycle this stuff, all the different types of materials have to be sorted out (and any trash people wrongly or mistakenly added has to be removed).

This brings us to the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF). These facilities use humans and/or fancy (and super expensive) machines to separate recyclables into their separate types. Each type gets packaged (often in bales) and sold to recycling plants specializing in that specific material.

That’s where my company comes in! We buy bales of nasty (but sorted) polypropylene from MRFs, grind it and clean it, and melt it down to make pellets that can be injection molded into new items for people to use. My company doesn’t make use of government subsidies, and most of our customers don’t even pay a premium on account of the “post-consumer recycled (pcr)” content in the plastic they buy from us. And we make a profit doing this.

So, from my perspective, it’s tempting to discount the article I read. After all, I’m recycling plastic and making money at it. So clearly it is worthwhile to recycle plastic. But I’ve got to be careful not to oversimplify things! Let’s take a look at some additional information:

Fact 1: Sorting is HARD!

Many MRFs don’t separate the different plastic types very well. And that’s a problem for us, since 5% PET (#1 plastic) mixed with our polypropylene (#5) is enough to bring our machines to a screeching halt. Our grinding and cleaning process does a great job of removing all the “random crap” from our polypropylene, but then we have to landfill all of that random crap. It isn’t rare for us to see 25% loss of total weight over the course of our cleaning process. And we’ve seen much worse at times. So, in order to procure bales of post-consumer plastic clean enough for efficient processing, we often find ourselves shipping in material from many states away. This is sad, because I’m sure that there’s millions of pounds of polypropylene flowing into landfills across Missouri and Kansas. It’s also worth noting that I don’t have any idea how profitable it is for MRFs to sort plastic.

Fact 2: Product Design is Important

It makes me sad every time I see a plastic water bottle. Your everyday water bottle is made of PET (#1). But the label is either made of paper or a thin film of polypropylene (#5) printed with acrylic inks. And the cap is usually made of high-density polyethylene (#2). This unnecessary mixing of non-compatible material types in so so many consumer products adds to the difficulty, expense, and waste of recycling and makes me sad. Technically, consumers share the guilt for this, since we like to buy items in pretty containers with shiny labels. But I feel that corporations bear the chief guilt and need to re-think their packaging design paradigm.

Fact 3: Recycling Isn’t a Silver Bullet

Recycling uses a TON of electrical power. I can probably look up the numbers for you sometime if you like. But suffice to say that using a plastic bottle and then recycling it afterwards is far worse for the environment than drinking from a re-usable container. It’s better than sending plastic to the landfill. But we mustn’t forget that reducing our plastic consumption and re-using plastic items are better options than recycling.

Ok. It is DEFINITELY bedtime now. So I’m gonna stop here with a quick recap:

Please please please recycle! I promise that it is worth it. And as oil becomes more scarce it’s going to become more important in the future. Yes, there are certainly a lot of examples of cases where plastics collected for recycling end up getting put into landfills. But not all of it ends up there! And I really believe that if we take this issue seriously we can dramatically improve our recycling infrastructure. Yes, we should be skeptical of the information that big plastics companies feed us. Yes we should do our best to reduce our use of plastics. But if we give up on recycling because we read in an article that recycling isn’t worthwhile, then nothing is going to get better.

Have a great night!

-Alexander

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