If you are like most Americans, you contribute to curbside recycling by throwing your paper, glass, and consumer plastics into a bin that goes out with your trash each week. You might work for a company that recycles certain materials as well. Yet how much of what you contribute to the recycling stream actually gets recycled? How effective are your recycling efforts when push comes to shove?
Unfortunately, most people do not realize just how ineffectively humanity recycles. Compared to the amount of waste we produce we don’t recycle very well. It’s not that we don’t try. We do. It’s just that we don’t do it very well.
Every bit of waste we produce is theoretically recyclable. So why are our collective recycling efforts so feeble? Because effective recycling depends heavily on five key things. If any one of the five is missing, all bets are off.
Key #1: Efficiency
Humanity has become very adept at mass-producing nearly every object we use. Mass production is efficient and cost-effective. It is infinitely repeatable. If we cannot recycle as efficiently as we mass-produce, we lose some of the incentive to do so. Therefore, a lack of efficiency greatly hinders our ability and willingness to reduce waste.
Fortunately, there are examples of efficient recycling all around us. Memphis-based Seraphim Plastics has developed an efficient process for transforming commercial plastic waste into regrind that can be mixed with new plastic to manufacture new things. It just works.
Key #2: Purity
Current recycling efforts are hindered by the fact that many materials we want to recycle are not pure. This principle is easily observed by comparing commercial plastic waste with its residential counterpart.
Seraphim buys tons of plastic scrap cutoffs from injection mold manufacturers. Even though it is waste, it is pure and clean waste that doesn’t require any separation or extra processing in preparation for grinding. On the other hand, that ketchup bottle that winds up in your recycling bin is contaminated. It has to be cleaned and pre-treated before it can be processed by a recycler.
Key #3: Cost-Effectiveness
The amount of money it costs recyclers to do what they do affects the price of the recycled materials they sell. This is one of the chief reasons curbside recycling programs do not work. Recycled materials gleaned from such programs are more expensive than brand-new materials. Thus, convincing companies to buy the stuff is a fool’s errand. Effective recycling requires cost-effective processes.
Key #4: Stable Markets
Hand-in-hand with cost-effectiveness are stable markets. Simply put, there has to be a market for the recycled materials you produce. Otherwise, what is the point in putting financial resources and labor into recycling? Again, Seraphim Plastics succeeds because there is a stable and strong market for plastic regrind. As long as they keep making money, they will keep recycling commercial plastic waste.
Key #5: Innovation
Finally, effective recycling requires innovation. We already know how to effectively recycle commercial plastic waste and make money doing it. Now we need to innovate effective ways to recycle consumer plastics. Once we figure that out, we need to move on to recycling composite materials.
Every successful recycling method is the direct result of individuals and organizations innovating. Encouraging innovation should naturally lead to better recycling methods. If we stifle innovation through regulation and taxation, we are ultimately limiting our own ability to create new ways to recycle.
Recycling nearly every bit of waste is theoretically possible. Practically speaking though, it is not doable. Effective recycling requires the five things described in this post. Without them, we will forever be limited in our recycling efforts.