Today is World Recycling Day and in the lead-up to this day, we were looking for some exciting and uplifting statistics to share in the celebration of recycling. However, after much research we decided that there was a larger conversation to be had about recycling; a conversation about its current state, flaws, and how we could improve it.
Most people don’t give too much thought to recyclables once they’ve left their home, putting something in the blue bin seems like a nearly magical way to turn that used metal can or plastic bottle into a nice new can or bottle. Most people think this way because it’s how recycling has been sold to us by manufacturers and lobbyists, but unfortunately, this is far from reality. In reality, the process of recycling refers to a broad swath of activities that involve taking a product, piece of packaging, or another item, breaking it down from its current state into a raw material, then turning that raw material back into a new product. This process can be super helpful in recapturing value from items at the end of their life, however, the recycling system that exists today has unsuccessfully become the default endpoint for our single-use lifestyle, and this overreliance on recycling has fundamentally broken the system. Let’s walk through how recycling works and where this complicated system breaks down.
How recycling works
Once an item is placed in a blue bin and set out for collection, it is picked up by a recycling truck, where the picker sorts mixed blue bin items by their material type. This is where we run into our first problem, wish cycling. Essentially, wish cycling is when people add non-recyclable materials to their blue bins in the hopes that they can be recycled. If these items aren’t removed at this step in the process, before they enter the sorting system, they can go on to contaminate large amounts of actual recyclable material, and even break expensive recycling equipment.
Once the material is collected curbside it is aggregated at a recycling facility which further sorts, processes and organizes the material for resale. Glass is broken down and put into containers, cardboard is compressed into bales, and different types of plastics are sorted and baled as well. In theory, this process creates large amounts of raw materials that can be sold and shipped to manufacturers who turn that product back into new products.
This is where we run into another problem: the market for recycled materials. Depending on the recycled material, there can be very little demand for it on the open market. This can be caused by the fact that it can often be cheaper and easier to produce new products with virgin material rather than using recycled material. This drives the price of recycled material down, often to the point where it makes more economic sense to burn or landfill the materials instead of trying to sell them. Many people talk about this in reference to plastic, saying that only 9% of plastic globally is recycled, but a rarely mentioned issue is that many recyclers in North America don’t recycle glass at all, simply landfilling crushed glass. Due to contamination and a lack of demand, many recyclers, like this one in Waterloo Region, have been known to simply bury glass recyclate rather than process and resell it.
There are ways to create and increase market demand for recycled products like glass and plastic. A recently enacted standard in Germany is mandating a minimum amount of recycled material (25%) in all single-use plastic beverage bottles by 2025. This creates a high demand for recycled plastic, ensuring it is worthwhile for companies to keep it out of landfills and incinerators.
However, this doesn’t get to the final problem with recycling. In the best-case scenario for recycling, materials like glass and plastic are shipped halfway around the world, melted down using large amounts of energy, and made into the same product they originally were (though with plastic it’s unlikely to turn into the same product because of downcycling), just for those products to be shipped all the way back to where they were originally used. This process creates an immense amount of CO2 emissions and can lead to material leaking out of the process at every step, ending up in landfills or our natural environment.
A better way forward
We’ve been led to believe that recycling is the supreme solution for all of our consumer materials and that through recycling we can continue to live a single-use lifestyle. However, this simply isn’t the case. Recycling is an important step when products and packaging are no longer usable in their current form, and with the right improvements recycling could come much closer to our idealized image of what it is. However, in order to make improvements in recycling we first need to adopt “upstream” solutions like reuse and refill to reduce the amount of material flowing through our broken recycling system.
Circulr is an example of reuse as a successful upstream solution and can be much better for the environment than recycling, as touched on in our “Environmental Benefits of Reuse” blog post. However, we want to share more stories of successful reuse models from around the globe. Stay tuned for an article all about successful reuse models coming in the next few weeks!
For now, if you want to reduce your impact and support upstream solutions, you can participate in Circulr by purchasing and enjoying some of our partner products, and returning your empty jar to Circulr, rather than tossing it in your blue bin.