Recycle, recyclable, recycled-content. We see it everywhere, but what is recycling really?
According to Merriam-Webster, “recycle” means “to process (as liquid body waste, glass, or cans) in order to regain material for human use.” This definition is a great start, but there is a lot more to recycling than meets the eye.
Many businesses we work with have ongoing challenges with recycling. Common questions and comments we get when working with businesses and organizations include: “Why can’t it be recycled?” I recycle this at home, why can’t I at work? “It says on the bottom that it is recyclable, or it said in the catalogue that it’s recyclable so I put it in my recycling bin.” and “Is my waste hauler really recycling or is it just being land filled?
Let’s first start with the term “recyclable.” Yes, in theory many items we purchase could be labeled “recyclable.” But what makes something recyclable? First, a market must be present for that item to be recycled. In other words, the powder coat waste ABC Manufacturing produces is recyclable but are there places to ACTUALLY RECYCLE IT? The answer greatly depends on the area of the country, as well as what products are made with the recyclable material. Another great example is reusable poly shopping bags, which are often marketed as 100% recyclable. However, I do not know of any places that are currently accepting these bags – particularly from consumers – for recycling. And it may be too early in the Reusable Bag Revolution to really determine the impacts of these bags, especially since most people’s bags are not at the end of their lives yet.
We can also look at the production side of recycling. Many businesses, especially manufacturers, already recycle their waste internally. This is a practical business move that saves money on raw materials. Some of these businesses may also produce products with post-consumer recycled content. This is a key part of recycling – supporting recycling markets by purchasing recycled products. If no one wants to buy the products, there is no market for them.
A third factor that ties into the recycling picture is downcycling, which is the process of using recycled materials to materials of lesser quality (structurally speaking). Certain products containing recycled content are no longer recyclable due to the quality of the building blocks of that material. Plastics are a great example of this, as they face many challenges due to downcycling.
Our future vision is one of cradle-to-cradle, where “waste” is nonexistent because companies design products like nutrients cycling in a closed system. The components are continually broken down and built back up, over and over. Nature has a beautiful way of showing us that endless reuse has always been there, we just need to open our eyes to the possibilities. In the meantime, being aware of the products you are purchasing at work and at home can help to support recycling markets as we move into the future.