Patrick Eng
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Week 41 - What I Need to Know About Recycling

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The General Idea

The idea of recycling is very simple - you take something you no longer need and somehow convert it into something you can use again. To get some ideas, you could just search for "recycled crafts" on Pinterest and you'll see tons of things you can do with all the stuff you were about to throw out.

But that's just looking at the micro-level. When it comes to entire countries trying to recycle, we all can't just keep making soap bottles out of Jack Daniel's bottles. At this level, entire industries are created to collect recyclable material with the idea of making money from down and up-cycling those collected materials.

As they sound, down-cycling is simply taking the product (glass, cardboard, aluminum, etc), breaking it down, and recycling it into a product that is weaker or just of lesser value.

On the flip side, up-cycling is taking that recyclable material and converting it into something that has more value than what it originally had. For example, turning old aluminum cans into handcrafted art pieces.

When it comes to recycling though, everything has a lifespan. Each item can only go through so many iterations of breakdown and reconstruction before they become unusable.

How it Began

Recycling, at least at the micro or household level, has been around for thousands of years. When resources were scarce, people naturally find ways to recycle everything they had. If you think about it, you can see recycling happening when early hunters used bones from dead animals to craft weapons or fibrous materials from crops to create clothes. Remember, the idea of recycling is just taking something that isn't being used anymore and turning it into something useful again.

But taking a step back, we need to see how large-scale recycling came to be. In this sense, we can really trace the need back to the industrial age, where we could begin producing products at scale and the culture of disposable goods that we adopted.

During the 30's and 40's, however, the war caused a ripple effect across multiple industries. With resources being rationed, the idea of recycling became a necessity. People needed to be smart with the materials they had, and just throwing it away would just complete idiocy.

The war ended though, and the following years of economic growth gave people the opportunity to put recycling on the back burner. At least until the 70's, when once again, recycling entered the limelight through the first Earth Day. While there have been a few hiccups over the past few decades, recycling seems to be doing well year-over-year due to increasing public acceptance, improved recycling technology, and policies enforcing use and production of recycled material.

Why Should We Recycle?

Ever heard of landfills? You probably have, but then you probably never really think about them too. For those who aren't familiar, America alone has dumped hundreds of millions of tons (literally tons) of garbage into the earth each year. Yep, we just dump garbage into an area until it fills up.

It shouldn't be too hard to think about the environmental impact that would have on the surrounding area. Sure, we've figured out how to mostly contain the chemical soup (i.e., leachate) that is created in these landfills, but it's not always contained. But recycling at least is able to cut back on almost ⅓ of waste that we put into landfills.

Or just think about how it could be more efficient to recycle paper than plant, harvest, and convert trees into the same material. Yes, we'll still need those pulp trees for a purer base, but a majority of the product could be made with recycled material, saving much-needed resources.

In some cases, those resources could be energy, depending on what you're trying to recycle. For example, recycling steel is much more efficient and energy-friendly than mining and converting the same amount. But recycling plastic is tough, and many cases unrealistic, especially considering how cheap it is just to make it.

Or let's just pretend you don't give a shit about the environment. Recycling saves you money, at least if you live in a populated city. In many instances, cities are charged by the ton for landfill usage. And where do you think the city gets its money from?

By recycling, you reduce the amount of landfill usage the city/county needs and can actually help bring revenue and jobs. Entire companies are built on buying recyclable material and making something new. If you don't really recycle in some way, then you're just unimaginative.

Common Material To Recycle

1. Paper

Paper comes in all shapes and sizes and is one of the most renewable resources, at least at the cost of cutting down entire forests and planting pulpwood trees everywhere. By recycling your paper, you're able to reduce the amount of water and energy and reduce the amount of pollution needed to make all our paper.

When it comes to recycling all your paper products though, it tends to go through a very basic process:

  1. The paper is collected, either picked up at your house or from a collection center.

  2. It's sorted based on type, weight, colors, the number of times already recycled, and it's original use.

  3. It's reduced down to a pulpy substance through a water and chemical bath.

  4. Impurities are removed using magnets, filters, more chemical washes, and gravity.

  5. The cleaned pulpy substance is then rolled into sheets, pressed, and dried. If needed, some pure pulp is added to the mix to increase paper strength.

  6. The dried sheets are cut into their needed dimensions.

Just remember that this down-cycling process shortens the lifespan of the paper each time, and will eventually cause the quality of paper to be so low that it can no longer be recycled.

2. Glass

Unlike paper, there seems to be very little loss of quality when it comes to recycling glass (that is unless you mix colors). Recycling glass follows a pretty similar process to paper. The glass is collected, cleaned, sorted, and broken down.

This broken down glass, called cullet, can then be reformed into new glass. When it comes to recycling glass though, make sure you are only recycling jars and bottles. Do not recycle window or light bulb glass, as they are too complicated and expensive to break down and reuse.

3. Steel

In America at least, all steel must be created with at least 25% recycled steel. From bull-dozed buildings to old cars, steel is a great material that can be recycled. Following the same process, old steel is sorted, melted, refined, and rolled out to be shipped out for reuse.

4. Aluminum

Similar to steel, recycling aluminum cans is much more efficient than mining, melting, and casting brand new ones. Overall, aluminum has incredible recycling efficiency, but is not exactly capitalized upon just yet (i.e, $700 million worth of aluminum is thrown away each year).

5. Organic Material

Often known as composting, organic material is a natural recyclable material. From your old banana peels to used coffee grounds, composting is a great way to reuse all that organic material you were going to throw away. Right off the bat, you can use it as a fertilizer for your garden. Or, for some things that might not compost too well, think rubber, you can always reuse it in a creative way. Use your imagination. For example, who wouldn't love a tire swing?

When Recycling gets Tricky

As we've seen, recycling plastic can get a little messy since it's very cheap to produce but potentially expensive, if not unrealistic, to recycle.

But for the plastics that can be recycled, it is generally sorted/filtered/sifted, broken down, and melted for re-purposing.

Or take electronics for example. Due to their complex nature of various metals, chemicals, and components, it is generally much more labor intensive to recycle your laptop or iPhone. While there are a lot of precious metals found in these electronics, there are various toxic ones as well. Therefore, various companies specializing in e-waste have been created to address this sector.

Recycling Programs

In order to recycle all those soda cans you've been collecting, you generally have four ways you could do the job:

  • Recycle Trucks: just like garbage trucks, these vehicles specialize in recycling and come pick up your recyclable material

  • Drop-off: simply a location to drop off the recyclable material that you brought yourself, specifically if that material is hazardous and can't be something that is picked up by a truck.

  • Buy-back: think scrap yards that will take scrap metal and pay you based on weight.

  • Refund Programs: whenever you buy a can or bottle of soda, you actually pay an extra 5 cent deposit on top of the base price. This is so that you actually return the empty can or bottle and get refunded that 5 cents.

Critics say…

It's a zero-sum game. Meaning, the energy and pollutants created from recycling that old material cancels out any benefit it might bring. Take for example plastic. But, in counter to this, we have steel, aluminum, and glass which require much less energy than creating it all from scratch and can be recycled multiple times.

We have plenty of landfill space. I mean, yeah we could keep dumping millions of pounds of garbage into the earth for the foreseeable future, but why…? We have the ability and technology to save time, money, and the environment. So the worst thing that could happen is we stop polluting.

You become an entitled consumer. So here's the catch - people should recycle with the idea of purchasing less material. Meaning, just because you're going to recycle all 32 bottles of water you just bought doesn't mean you should keep buying 32-packs. Recycling is addressing the problem of consumerism, not a way to feel ok about constantly purchasing plastic.

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Single Stream Recycling (SSR): the system where consumers can collect all their recyclable material (glass, metal, paper, plastic, etc.) in one container for collection, instead of separating each item into a specific material type.

The process of SSR originally began in California in the 90's, but was gradually adopted nationwide over the subsequent decades.

The idea is simple: the collected material is brought to a Material Recovery Facility (MRF) where it is sorted and processed. All the processed material is then gathered and shipped based on the type to be broken down and recycled. While the actual technology and methods used to sort and process all this material will vary, it generally involves the use of conveyor belts, magnets, lasers, and filters.

Let's run through a basic process:

  • Gathered material is manually filtered for non-recyclable material

  • The filtered material is then placed on a conveyor belt that begins the sorting journey

  • Items are filtered based on weight, dividing them into different areas

  • The material is run under magnets, which pick up the metal products

  • A manual check is done on the material to pick out anything that might have snuck through

  • Another magnet pushes out all aluminum cans

  • The finalized fibrous materials (think cardboard, paper, etc) are then sorted by workers into separate bins

The Results of SSR

1. Increased Quantity

It allows for lazy recycling, thus increasing public approval and adoption. Since we don't have to separate our glass, metal, and paper into different bins, it's much easier for us to just throw everything into one container and be done with it. Very little thought or energy is required on the consumer's side.

On the collector's side too, there are fewer costs involved since they only need one type of pickup, instead of one dedicated to each recyclable type.

2. Decreased Quality

When all your materials gather in one place though, you're making a breeding ground for contamination. For example, cardboard and paper are very absorbent. Which is why you can't actually recycle pizza boxes that have grease on them. The spread of contamination can easily ruin any the quality of the material and make it unusable.

Then, at the MRF, the workers are required to manually check each line to ensure that items are being sorted properly and that ineligible items are being removed.

Potential Solutions

While the idea of single stream recycling is still commonplace, there are certain communities that are going in a dual stream direction. While this can be beneficial for a more efficient sorting process, it has yet to be seen if there will be such acceptance of it.

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Now that we have the theory and process out of the way, let's look at some basic practical steps that you can take to begin your recycling movement.

Start Small and Scale Up

Rome wasn't built in a day, and you won't overhaul your entire lifestyle to be waste-free overnight. Make sure that your goals should be SMART goals, meaning that they are at least attainable and realist (among other things). Don't bite off more than you can chew - even just starting with plastic bottles is an easy first step, then add more segmentations later.

RR(R)

Reduce.

Reuse.

(Recycle).

Foundational to the need for recycling is breaking out of the consumerist mindset. If possible, instead of buying the 32-packs of water every time you need bottled water, get the gallon versions instead. Or better yet, buy a water filter for your sink. If you can reduce the amount of material you need, you eliminate the need to recycle in the first place. Or if you really need those plastic bottles, figure out how you can reuse them once you're done with them.

Maybe they'll make good funnels, decent plant containers, or even fun toothbrush holders.

Do and Don't Recycle These

While most people know that they can recycle paper, cardboard, plastic, glass, and metal, they don't always know that there are instances that could disqualify these materials.

For example, food material is a great way to ruin something and prevent it from actually being recycled - looking at you pizza boxes. Because of all the grease in a pizza box, recycling facilities are generally unable to actually recycle that cardboard due to the contamination of the grease.

The same goes for bottles and cans that are filled with liquids or other contents. Make sure that you rinse out all your recyclable materials so that it can be processed correctly when shipped off. Plus, it won't smell as bad as it stews in the container and attracts some trash pandas.

When it comes to plastic, you'll want to look at the number printed on the item. Each one means something different, so make sure you know at least what you should and shouldn't recycle.

General note: you can't recycle PVC piping or Styrofoam!

When it comes to glass, you're generally in the clear. But just like metal, make sure you rinse out each container before you throw it in the recycling bin. Also, maybe don't actually throw it, as broken glass can't be recycled due to the mixing of colored glass pieces.

You get a bin, and you get a bin...Every room gets a bin!

While most people will default to adding some sort of recycling container to the kitchen, why stop there? Put one in the bathroom, toss one in the bedroom, or be really edgy and install one in your garage. Make it easier to recycle by giving yourself more opportunities to do it, not just when you're cooking dinner.

Be R.A.D.

The Responsible Appliance Disposal program is an effort from the Environmental Protection Agency to help consumers safely dispose of large appliances (think fridges). Due to the complexities found in both types of items, it is generally impossible to just include them in your recycling bin.

If your fridge was made before 1995 then you really don't want it to just end up in a landfill. If you do, you'll end up contributing to the creation of some pretty nasty chemical soup due to some elements found in those fridges.

Recycle Food and Water (in a non-gross way)

Food and water are the best things you can reuse and recycle. When it comes to food, you can usually buy or construct bins to hold all the organic material (i.e., compost). Or, maybe your city has curbside pickup.

When it comes to water, there are plenty of ways that you could reuse all that liquid you seem to just pour out. Whether it be boiling broccoli or cooking spaghetti all that water can be reused somewhere else. All you need to do is stop and think for five minutes.

Speak with your Wallet

The best way to let companies and the government know what people find valuable is by how much money they spend on it. When you buy recycled products, you are telling companies little by little that recycling is more than just a way to help the environment, it's a way to make more money too! And what company doesn't want to do that?

Do a Quick Rinse

I mentioned this before, but rinsing out your metal, glass, and plastic containers before recycling them is more important than you think. Organic matter is a strong contaminant that could make or break recyclable material. Or, if that doesn't persuade you, just do it so it doesn't smell like literal garbage when you take it to the curb.

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Too Long; Didn't Read

Recycling is not some new hippy or even Millennial movement. It's been around for thousands of years, just probably not in the way that you would traditionally think about it (i.e., composting is a form of recycling).

In the past few decades, we've created the need for strong large-scale recycling processes, but the idea remains the same: take something that would normally be destroyed or tossed and turn it into something useful again.

Whether that be melting down old cans or re-purposing soda bottles, recycling can take a variety of forms.

When it comes to large-scale recycling though, America has traditionally gone the route of single stream recycling. Meaning, we throw all our recyclable material in one bin and have the workers and machines do the sorting for us.

While this has increased participation levels, we've also gotten lazy about how and what we recycle. In case you missed it, not all paper can be recycled, same with plastic, glass, and metal.

Each item has a lifespan, and there are multiple factors that could disqualify something from being recycled:

  • Grease on the cardboard

  • The bottle broke into small pieces

  • Plastics filled with harmful chemicals

  • Can's coated in that cream of mushroom

Do me a favor? Just rinse out the cans you plan to recycle. It's a small but important step. And that's how most of this will eventually make a difference. Making small changes at a time, and slowly adjusting your lifestyle to accommodate those changes.

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Patrick Eng