Recycling vs. Trash

What makes something trash rather than recyclable? To answer this, you have to understand recycling as an industry, not just a process. In their Friday, March 27 podcast (Episode 613: Trash!) NPR (National Public Radio) touched on this very topic – and  we think it’s worth elaboration.

Often, when people ask, “is this recyclable?” they want to know if  there is a way, either chemically or mechanically, to extract material from one item and use it to make something new. To this, our answer is usually “yes.” However, what is often overlooked is that recycling, in much of the world, is run by private businesses that require more than successful recycling processes to support their business model. They require markets.

Understanding The Industry

According to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Inc. (ISRI), “the recycling industry annually transforms 150 million metric tons of obsolete materials from consumers, businesses, and manufacturers into useful raw materials.” However, there is no singular company that represents the entire recycling industry. Rather, the industry is made up of many business types – including entities like Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs), haulers, brokers, and consulting agencies – and each of these businesses provide their own unique combination of offerings including services such as sorting, transporting, and processing used scrap. In turn, each of these businesses requires an outlet for their offerings, or a market.

Understanding Recycling Markets

For something to be recyclable, there has to be someone willing and able to recycle it. For businesses outside the recycling industry and for private consumers, recycling companies are that market. All the former need to do in order to recycle is find a recycling company willing to take their materials. Likewise, within the recycling industry, it is not uncommon for certain businesses to market their materials to other recycling companies. For instance, your business may pay company x to manage your waste and recycling program, and company x may in turn hire 3 different companies to provide collection containers, sort, and transport these materials. These items might then be sold to another recycling company, and so on and so forth until eventually they reach a processor, who transforms your recyclables into feedstock for manufacturing companies (for instance, plastic will be processed into plastic pellets and kraft and paper will be processed into pulp).

The thing that is often overlooked when thinking about recycling, is that in order for recycled materials to come full cycle, there must be markets interested in purchasing recycled scrap for remanufacturing, either in addition to or instead of using virgin materials. Without manufacturers willing to purchase recycled feedstock, there is no financial support structure for the recycling process (outside of directly charging for disposal fees). Unfortunately, as NPR touched on during their podcast, when virgin materials are readily available at relatively equal prices, manufacturing companies are less likely to choose used feedstock over virgin material. This is something we see happening today. News agencies like the Wall Street Journal report how reduction in oil prices make it difficult to market recycled plastic over virgin plastic. As virgin materials become less expensive, recycling companies lose necessary profit margins required to pay for overhead costs, making the recycling process financially unstable.

Finding Solutions

So how can you help support the recycling industry and keep recyclable material from becoming trash? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Reduce contamination in your recycling stream. Contamination refers to any type of material other than the target material (even recyclable materials can be considered contaminants if they are in the wrong container). Keeping contamination out of your recycling stream will help insure your recyclables are at their highest value, and are more likely to find markets.
  2. Support market development for recycled goods. For instance, consider purchasing goods from companies that guarantee a percentage of recycled materials in their products.
  3. Do what you can to support sustainable business practices.
  4. Find holistic solutions for your waste. While we like to think that everything is recyclable if there is someone willing to invest the time and resources in finding a solution, it can be expensive and overwhelming trying to find recycling solutions for each individual material – especially if they are obscure items that require more difficult recycling processes. One way to find the most solutions for diverting your waste from the landfill is by leveraging your valuable recyclables to fund solutions for items that might otherwise be considered trash.

As NPR’s podcast points out, the ultimate difference between trash and recycling lies in the value of the waste. If we want to create a world without trash we must not only create better processes for recycling but also create better value streams for used materials within our culture.