Joe E. Heimlich, Ph.D.
Leader Environmental Sciences
Recycling is perhaps the most widely recognized concept in solid waste management. Most people in our society have heard of recycling and generally know what the word means. Problems arise, however, in creating an understanding that recycling is one piece of the larger integrated waste management system. One of the keys to growth in recycling is to remove the concept of "waste" from "recycling" and focus on what recycling is - materials recovery.
There are many good reasons to recycle. Two of the biggest are that recycling saves energy and resources.
Recycling aluminum requires 95 percent less energy than producing aluminum from bauxite ore. Making paper from recycled stock requires 64 percent less energy than using wood pulp. Containers made from recycled plastic save up to 60 percent of the energy required to make the same product from virgin material. Recycled ferrous scrap consumes 75 percent less energy than new ore. Virtually every material recycled uses less energy than using virgin materials. How much energy is this? Using and discarding just two aluminum cans in one day uses more energy than is used daily by each of a billion people in less developed countries. The average saving, however, does not include added energy costs of collection and transportation.
About 70 percent of all metal is used only once before it is discarded. Use of waste oil saves the fund resources of crude oil. Over 50 percent of household waste is paper. Even though trees are a renewable resources, the rapid increase in paper use in our information society, coupled with the demand for pulp wood worldwide, has created a situation in which pulp trees are used more quickly than they are being replaced. The plastic manufacturing industry is a major user of petrochemicals (oil). A common claim is that recycling conserves natural resources - in many cases, recycling saves resources as well.
Some proponents of recycling suggest that everything should, could and ought to be recycled. While recycling often provides the highest value return for an item, this is not always the case.
Let's go back to the "nation's trash can" for just a moment. If indeed 20 percent or more of urban waste is yard waste, the value of this material is in composting and so can be removed from the pool of potential recyclables. It has been suggested that nearly 24 percent of household refuse (about 8-10 percent of commercial/household refuse) is food waste. These two categories together leave a conservative estimate of 56 percent of the household waste (70 percent of commercial and household) available for further processing. Many items that are recyclable are not profitable to recycle. Without guaranteed quantity and quality, the highly volatile recycling markets are not always open for certain materials.
Lack of Technology
Nearly six percent by weight of the nation's trash can is plastics. This percentage is increasing. The plastics industry claims, and rightfully so, that it is busily exploring new developments for recycling plastics.
The industry was built on a disposable commodity and, as plastics were developed, disposal and recyclability were not considerations. One example of this is the emergence of two liter polyethylene terephtalate (PET) soda containers that within ten years of its introduction, accounted for a majority of the volume of soft drinks sold. Now the industry is examining what to do with all the bottles.
Likewise, the development of many plastic containers was technologically brilliant. Multiple layers of lightweight, micro-thin plastic sheets were used with each layer a different plastic serving a different purpose. Thus, the squeeze bottle was born. Because of the layers of different plastics, these containers are virtually non-recyclable. Plastic waste materials are a significant and growing concern. Progress is slow but steady on reusing these petroleum-based (petrochemical) items. Meanwhile, the consumption of these items continues to increase.
Paper in the household and commercial refuse system is often easily recycled. But when newspapers are thrown together with garbage, they become wet and contaminated and probably cannot economically be recycled. Consumers still view recycled paper as "inferior" paper and choose not to buy recycled paper stock, which drives the production down and the cost up, making recycled paper a cost prohibitive item.
Glass contamination continues to be a problem in recycling as is plastic waste.
One of the old arguments against recycling is that recycling often requires the use of chemicals to clean and reprocess materials for use. One example is bleaching paper slurry to create a cleaner, whiter paper. Recycled paper slurry often includes inks that create a muddy and speckled tone in the paper. The bleaching required to whiten paper is significantly more then is required to whiten wood pulp. As with incineration and waste of air pollution, recycling and water pollution must be compared to land disposal and land pollution potential.
Recycled materials are a resource for industry. As such, the cost of the recycled material is one factor in deciding whether or not to use recycled materials. The collection of recyclable items, sorting (labor intense efforts), cleaning and other "extra" costs are included in the use of post- consumer material recovery.
Some recycling efforts are also energy intensive. Most recycling projects are labor intensive. Every recyclable material has some problems. The overriding issue however is demand for recycled materials. Recycling as an industry is demand driven. Only those materials for which there is a great demand at any given time are economical to recycle.
To create the market demand for recycled products, consumers must demand and purchase goods made from recycled materials and goods that are recyclable. There are several "myths" about household recycling that need to be changed before widespread consumer recycling will succeed.
One of the myths about recycling is that recycled products are inferior to virgin-source products. This myth grew out of the paper recycling industry. As paper is recycled, the length of fiber is reduced making a weaker paper. The industry, however, does not pass off inferior grades of paper. As there are over ninety classifications of paper, the new product is a lower grade. As an example, white, lined paper can be produced from recycled stock of envelope shavings and computer cards; the recycled is indistinguishable from the virgin. Similarly plastics also degrade in the process of recycling. Regarding glass and metals recycling, there is no possible means of a consumer ever being able to identify a new "virgin-source" container from a "recovered materials" container. Consumer and industry must break the myth that recycled products are inferior and demand recycled containers and wrappers.
Recycling Takes a Long Time
In many studies, it has been demonstrated that the average family involved in a curbside recycling program spends less than five minutes a day recycling. This includes rinsing out items, separating materials, and hauling materials to the curb. If separation bins are located in the house, time is greatly reduced. Time can be further reduced if the materials are taken to a drop off center during routine errands.
It Doesn't Pay to Recycle
Many people believe that recycling should make money - for individuals, for communities or for groups. Yet how many of us expect our solid waste to make money? Most of us pay in one way or another for the garbage to be removed from our homes. Waste management including recycling is a service, not a right.
Recycling does not have to "make" money to be worthwhile; in many communities, recycling is being undertaken to reduce overall costs of waste management and to save ultimate disposal (landfill) space and costs. In an integrated waste management system, recycling is considered to be cost-effective if the operation costs no more than land disposal of the same waste.
Recyclable vs. Recycled
Some consumers are beginning to look for boxes and containers that are labeled as recycled or recyclable. Recyclable containers are those that are made from virgin-source materials, but are able to be recycled (glass, single-metals, paperboard).
Recycled containers are those that have been remanufactured from at least 50 percent post-consumer materials. Not all recycled materials are recyclable; many recyclable materials are not recycled. The logo used to indicate that a container is made from recycled stock is a solid colored circle with a different colored arrow.
The logo used to indicate products that are recyclable uses the reverse symbol. Recycling can be a significant component of an integrated waste management system. Depending on markets and contract arrangements, various materials can help reduce the cost of waste management practices. In addition, recycling saves energy and resources, making it a valuable part of a waste management effort.
Extension fact sheet CDFS-112 discusses community recycling programs and household recycling efforts.
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