With the effects of the ongoing climate crisis being felt around the world, it has never been more important to try and do all we can at an individual and corporate level to minimize our impact. Which means that we have to get serious about recycling and sustainability.
Recycling our waste products helps to conserve energy, reduce pollution, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and minimize our consumption of precious natural resources. It also helps to prevent waste ending up in landfill when it could be reused and turned into something new.
Understanding exactly what can and what cannot be recycled will help you divert as much as possible away from landfill. It will also help to ensure you don’t accidentally contaminate the collection in your local recycling center and help your nearest Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) to run smoothly.
In this recycling guide we will take a closer look at exactly why an effective recycling program is so important, now more than ever, and then examine just what can, and what cannot, be recycled.
Why is recycling so important?
A huge amount of energy is required to produce and manufacture new products from raw materials. As the planet becomes more populated and people as a whole have more wealth to buy products, rather than produce their own, more and more raw materials and energy are required to meet the demand.
Despite the data and increasing warnings about the environmental challenges we all face, much of the new packaging and technology that is being developed uses materials that are not biodegradable. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the US, the total generation of municipal solid waste (MSW) in 2018 was 292.4 million tons, around 4.9 pounds per person per day. These levels of waste production are just not sustainable.
Once introduced into our system, they are not going to go away by themselves. Landfills are not a sustainable option and are already full to bursting. In addition, many of the products we are creating use or release harmful chemicals into the atmosphere, which further contributes to global warming, increased temperatures, and extreme weather events.
The case for recycling is fairly clear. Yet the recycling statistics do not always seem to show the trends heading in the right direction. The recycling rate (including composting) fell to 32.1% in 2018, down from 34.7 percent in 2015. Then there is the cost of recycling. According to Bloomberg, in 2016 it cost New York City $18 per ton more to collect and process recyclables than to dispose of regular refuse. However, this does not tell the whole story. Much of this additional cost was caused by people attempting to recycle the wrong materials. For example, just one greasy pizza box can render an entire bale of cardboard as useless at the recycling facility. So, it’s clear that a greater understanding of what can and can’t be recycled is needed to prevent so-called ‘recycling contamination’ holding back this much needed development.
What items can be recycled?
Paper and cardboard
This constitutes around 23% of all MSW created in the US each year, with only around 68% of this being recycled in 2018.
Paper and cardboard items that can be recycled include:
- Newspapers and phone books
- Magazines and catalogs
- Junk mail (even with plastic windows)
- Clean food containers
- Cardboard boxes and papercard
- Shredded paper and office paper (depending on the recycling center)
- Paper bags
Around 40 million tons of plastic are generated each year in the US alone and only around 5% of this is recycled. Plastic items that can be recycled include:
- Plastic bags, wraps, and films (often in specific recycling bins and not general plastics)
- Plastic bottles, cartons, beverage containers, and lids
- Polystyrene foam (special bins)
- Clean plastic food containers
With plastics recycling it may be necessary to check the symbols to determine how and where it can be recycled. You can find a guide to the symbols here.
All types and colors of glass bottles can be recycled, although most recycling containers and sites do not accept broken glass. Metal caps and lids should also be removed before recycling.
Aluminum cans, such as beverage cans, can be recycled and do not need to be crushed before deposited. Some other types of ferrous scrap metal can also be recycled.
Food waste in the US is estimated at between 30 to 40% of production. While there are some limited composting facilities and private curbside recycling schemes in the US, the best way to tackle food waste is to try and produce less. You can find a list of food waste programs in the US here.
Other items that can be recycled include:
What Items Can’t Be Recycled?
The list of what can’t be recycled is far too long to recreate here, so here is a general guide to the types of things that can’t be recycled:
- Broken glass
- Items than can tangle (hoses, cords, ropes)
- Hazardous or toxic materials (like paint, cleaning products etc which need to be disposed of in correct facilities)
- Food soiled items
- Gas cylinders
- Bulky plastic items (such as children’s toys, garden furniture etc)
- Clothes (consider donating if still wearable)
- Light bulbs
- Multi-material items
Is Recycling Really Better for the Environment?
There has been a recent backlash and a questioning of the efficacy of recycling. And while it is true that recycling is not the perfect solution to the problem (ultimately using less is always the best answer) it still has a very important role to play. For example, despite the carbon used in collection and processing, recycled aluminum is about 95% less energy-intensive to make than its raw alternative.
The argument is that the availability of recycling is encouraging additional consumption, as people can assuage their guilt by recycling the products they use. There may be an element of truth in this, after all, haven’t we all felt a little better by simply tossing some more wrapping (we probably didn’t need to use) in the recycling? But this is also incredibly difficult to prove and is little more than conjecture.
What is certain is that, even despite the current higher costs of processing, recycling is a significantly better option than simply sending to landfill or even worse, burning. Yes, consumption needs to fall radically in the coming years but in the meantime, recycling is the best way to deal with the waste we produce.
Why Is it Important to Use Recyclable Materials?
Purposefully using recyclable materials reduces the need to extract, refine and process raw materials. This saves energy all along the chain, from mining and quarrying to transport, machine production and more. Every bottle you use that comes from recycled materials is one less that needs to be made from scratch. Using recyclable materials can:
- Keep the environment clean
- Reduce the amount of waste produced
- Help conserve non-renewable resources
- Save energy
- Prevent filling of landfills and use of incinerators
- Improve household economy
- Create new job opportunities
- Reduce the need for materials
What Makes Something Recyclable?
According to the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, something is recyclable: ‘if it can be collected, sorted, reprocessed and ultimately reused in manufacturing or making another item’. So, there is an element of whether or not the material will be recycled to take into account too.
Something is only truly recyclable if there is a substantial likelihood that it will be collected and reused. That means there needs to be a market for the material and a sustainable and profitable way of reusing it. For example, according to the EPA, paper products had a recycling rate of around 68.1% in 2018, compared to plastics which are at around 9%. In this sense, paper is a much more recyclable material than plastic.
Is Technology the Future of Recycling?
As with many challenges in life, there is a vague hope that technology will come to the rescue. But how true is this when it comes to recycling? Does technology have any answers for the current waste and recycling issues that we face? The good news is that, yes, there are a number of positive technological ideas out there to help us combat the issue.
For example, enzyme-based depolymerization has shown to be effective at breaking down plastic waste, although questions remain about the financial viability of this on a larger scale. Several projects are also working on creating plastic that is much easier to recycle. And the ongoing advances in internet technology are both streamlining recycling practices and also reducing consumption.
However, although there is some evidence that advances in technology can help to improve recycling, it would be a mistake to put all our faith in this as a panacea. We all need to take responsibility for both our levels of consumption and for the responsible treatment of the waste we do create.
In conclusion, recycling has never been as important and pressing a concern as it is right now but it is clear that as a whole, more needs to be done. It is possible to recycle more materials than ever before and at more places, yet the statistics still make for worrying reading. Technology is giving us some hope but the reality is we can’t run or hide from the problem.
Only grown up attitudes and responsible thinking can help us to tackle the waste problem. And that’s exactly where we come in at RTS. Our waste management experts can help you to deal with waste in a much more sustainable and cost-effective way. From creating effective waste strategy to responsible collection, our complete waste services for both businesses and communities will help you to tackle the problem head on.
If you want to learn more about responsible waste disposal and how your business can begin increasing diversion rates, then contact our TRUE advisors today to discuss your requirements and learn more about how to develop a healthier relationship with waste by subscribing to the RTS blog.