Recycling is more than just a trend, it has become a way of life. But are we doing enough? How are other countries in the world doing relative to yours and how does that make you feel? Follow me as I take you through the reality of recycling in North America to understand where we can improve.
Recycling programs have expanded and become part of our everyday lives in order to help make our planet more sustainable. But is recycling sustainable? Recycling is the process of converting waste into new products. The idea behind it is that by not always using new materials to make products we could cut down on greenhouse gas emissions released during the manufacturing process, as well as help reduce the amount of waste going into landfills. Recycling helps prevent dangerous materials as well as potentially useful materials from ending up in a waste pile. That’s the hope anyways. The reality on the other hand is something far less encouraging.
Do you recycle? Do you believe you recycle properly? Do you know what the process of recycling involves? When I recycle I believe I am helping to save the planet, which is a driving factor I’m sure most of us can relate to. But what happens after we have separated the plastic from the paper? Are we really realizing a sustainable planet? When I started thinking about this topic I was merely curious about the “what happens next” stage of recycling. I have always liked taking things apart and learning how and why things work. I started peeling away layers upon layers of recycling efforts and what I found is nothing short of stunning. First of all, we don’t recycle as much as we should; not by a long shot. According to a study conducted by the EPA in 2015, landfills are still filling up with valuable commodities that could be repurposed in some way or another. E-waste is the biggest category of lost value right now, accounting for 20-50 metric tons of global waste. Old TV’s, computers and stereos contain valuable amounts of metals and components that are not only hazardous to the environment, but are highly sought after by many industries. Electronics are broken down, components that can contain hazardous materials such as alkaline or lithium from batteries, or capacitors that contain other poisonous metals must be removed to prevent damage to the soil and environment. Precious metals such as silver solder or copper can be melted down and repurposed over and over again. Plastic components such as casings or mother boards and glass components can all be separated and sold to re-purposers to be broken down and re-used in like-material products.
Now before you keep reading be warned – if you are an avid recycler I do not want to dissuade you from your efforts, but what you are about to read may deflate your peppy “I’m doing my part to save the planet” attitude. Forever.
Recycling is not doing what we had hoped in terms of helping to save the planet. At least not the way we are doing it. Only a small fraction of our efforts are actually beneficial (and I will show some examples below), but for the most part recycling is far too expensive and inconvenient for most people to actually make a positive impact on the planet and there are several reasons why. Let’s start with contamination. And not the biohazardous kind, but something I never would have guessed in a million years; the products we buy are contaminating the products we recycle. Let’s say you are reading the morning paper and spill your coffee on it. Guess what- that’s now contaminated and cannot be used for quality recycling. Same goes for recyclable plastic containers like yogurt cups. If you don’t rinse out that cup to ensure that there is no food residue left, then it is contaminated and it cannot be recycled so it’s sent to the landfill by the recycling companies. Now think about your morning coffee that you get in the drive through on your way to work. The cup is made of recycled materials and itself is recyclable, including the lid. But guess what… unless you take the time to rinse that cup and lid before you put it in the recycling bin, you may as well just toss it in the garbage because that recyclable product is contaminated.
Michael Robertson, the materials recovery facility contract manager for the City of Edmonton, says:
“If everybody took the initiative to make that effort and educate themselves in each individual instance where they were uncertain, it would definitely improve the quality of the product we’re seeing here”.
But there is that trade off. In St. John’s, Newfoundland, they have a contamination rate in their recyclables of only 4.6%, however, only about 60% of households participate because of the burden of doing all the work themselves.
According to that same EPA study in 2015 (which when updated in 2018, numbers were essentially flat across the board) not all countries have formal recycling programs, but for those that do the numbers are staggering:
|Country||% of Recyclable Products Sent to Recycling Facilities|
Because the EPA is American based, I will dig into the numbers from the States. Based on reporting, the United States recycled only 34% of it’s Municipal Solid Waste (MSW). Of that 34%:
- Paper and paperboard: 66.6 percent (up from 64.7 percent in 2014)
- Glass: 26.4 percent (up from 26.0 percent)
- Steel: 33.3 percent (up from 33.0 percent)
- Aluminum: 18.5 percent (down from 19.8 percent)
- Other nonferrous metals: 67.6 percent (up from 66.7 percent)
- Plastics: 9.1 percent (down from 9.5 percent)
- Rubber and leather: 17.8 percent (up from 17.5 percent)
- Textiles: 15.3 percent (down from 16.2 percent)
- Wood: 16.3 percent (up from 15.9 percent)
- Other materials: 27.7 percent (down from 29.1 percent)
- Food scraps: 5.3 percent composting rate (up from 5.1 percent)
- Yard trimmings: 61.3 percent (up from 61.1 percent)
None of that takes contamination into account – of these numbers, products discovered to be contaminated by the facility are then sent on to landfills.
In recent news, China is imposing tougher new purity standards on the recycled material it purchases from North America. According to an article published in the Globe and Mail:
As of Jan. 1, 2018, China, which buys approximately two-thirds of North America’s recyclables, requires that contamination levels – newspaper smeared with ketchup, plastics mixed with broken glass – can’t exceed 0.5 per cent as part of its National Sword initiative.
Think about that statement- “plastics mixed with broken glass”. The last time you broke a glass in your home, where did you put the broken pieces? According to the same Globe and Mail article, Toronto – which uses a “one-bin-for-all-recyclables” model has a current contamination rate of 25%. British Columbia boasts the lowest contamination rate in North America of 6.5%, a far cry from the 0.5% that China is now enforcing.
Recycling anything requires quality input. Much like everything else in the world, a product is only as good as the materials that make it. Using the examples I have in my home, I put paper in the paper bin, cardboard in the cardboard bin and bottles are taken to the bottle depot in my community. Each kind of paper can be used for different things. Sure, throwing all your paper into the paper stream will make recycled paper products, but only if the quality of paper being sent to be recycled is high. Even toilet paper has standards as to the quality of paper used. This process is called sorting, and it’s been a fundamental principal of recycling for many years now. Except it’s not being done properly and is negatively impacting on the productivity of recycling.
When it comes to recycling in Germany, one of the best globally (62% of all recyclable products are recycled properly), the industry that is responsible for creating the waste is also responsible for dealing with the waste post-consumption. That means that after you get that coffee from Starbucks for example, Starbucks would be responsible for ensuring that cup gets recycled properly.
“The concept in which private industries are responsible for eliminating waste — and for covering the costs — is described as the ‘polluter pays’ principle. In other words, those who create the waste are responsible for cleaning up the mess. The U.S. has a ‘consumer pays’ policy, in which waste management is funded by taxpaying citizens.” —Marie Look, writer of “Trash Planet: Germany”
Germany’s success comes from its citizens embracing the recycling culture as well as strong government support. Here in North America, we have a garbage stream and a recycling stream which is not being sorted properly. Germany has six different colored bins found publicly for their recycling; black for general waste, blue for paper, yellow for plastic, white for clear glass, green for colored glass and brown for composting. But even that could be expanded to include colored plastics, different types of paper as well as cardboard.
At the risk of sounding like Captain Obvious, Germany’s answer to productive recycling seems to be proper sorting. However, it’s far easier said than done. Newspaper is different from loose leaf paper, which is different from printer paper, which is different from catalogue pages and so forth. Do you have room in your home for 10 paper recycling bins? Maybe, but how about another 10 bins for different types of cardboard and another 6 bins for various plastics and another 5 for different glass products? The numbers add up pretty quickly.
As possible solutions, there are a few different perspectives out there but no one perspective has an overwhelming amount of support. There are those who say the government should step in and make proper recycling mandatory, meaning someone would be legislated to do the sorting. Another option would be to make it a public service, much like bottle depots. Bottle depots are by far the greatest example in North America of recycling done right. Do we start banning some products from landfills? How in the world would that be enforced? Every garbage bag taken to the dump would need to be cut open and sorted, and then if there was a banned product in that bag, how do you identify the owner in order to fine them? And to that end, how long until plastic garbage bags are no longer accepted at landfills?
Unfortunately, we face challenges when it comes to proper sorting. Most recycling facilities are not willing to hire the manpower to do that sorting because there is not enough of a market for recycled goods due to the quality not being as high as non-recycled goods. There are facilities that can sort a lot of mixed waste, separating soda cans from soup cans, plastic water bottles from plastic milk jugs, but it’s not a perfect process so the quality streams are still very low. And even still, much of the product that can be recycled still ends up in landfills as the report from the EPA clearly illustrates.
Living in Canada, we pay a deposit every time we buy a bottle of soda, a jug of milk or a can of beer. When we return these bottles, jugs and cans to the depot, we get that deposit back. According to a study by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, 98% of all beer bottles were returned in 2014 for refund. Generally speaking, we Canadians don’t return bottles with the mindset of saving the planet- we want that money back to go buy more beer!
All in all, I don’t know what the solution is, my brain isn’t big enough to fathom that kind of fundamental change to our society – but we need to come up with something if we truly want to have an impact on “saving the planet”. The recycling companies in North America are slowly fading away because they can’t sell their products due to their quality being too low. Laissez-faire clearly doesn’t support recycling. We as a society are far too lazy to clean and sort our own waste and facilities are not currently set up to either accept the multitude of separate products or have the manpower to do the work themselves.
We are caught in an ironic recycling conundrum; we buy products that tell us they are recyclable, we return some products for recycling, but recycling education is not there so they just end up in a landfill. So, the question is: are we truly powerless against this trend, or are we able to make some real difference to our world? Well it starts with you- reading this article. We as a society need to follow Germany’s lead and do more to embrace and enhance the culture of recycling. Start learning about your local municipal recycling programs. Find out what the recycling center will and will not accept. Go talk to the landfill and see what they will or will not accept and start doing the sorting yourself at home. It may sound like a cliché, but do your part. The next task is to start talking to your local government and raising awareness in your own community. It may seem daunting at first but nothing worthwhile is easy, and the reality is we need to start doing more.