Refreshing the Concept of Recycling

We need to decide what recyclables are and learn how to best use them.

Why do you recycle? If you are like most people, you will give a number of reasons. “It’s the right thing to do,” “saving natural resources,” “improving the environment” and “saving landfill space” are among the most commonly cited reasons. Advocates also talk about job creation and diverting material from all kinds of disposal. 

But perhaps a more important question is why do state legislators pass recycling laws? They will cite the reasons given above when debating legislation, but their laws are usually focused on either increasing the state’s recycling rate or diverting materials from disposal. They rarely take a look at what, exactly, recyclables are or at how much we can realistically recycle. Instead, they pass the law and leave it up to others to figure out how to get to Paradise. We haven’t gotten there yet.

We need to take a different approach. First, we need to decide what recyclables are. Then, we need to learn how to best use them. 

So, what are “recyclables”? They are a raw material. Nothing more, nothing less. They only have value if a manufacturer can use them as raw materials. Otherwise, they are useless. Unfortunately, the recycling laws in most states look at recyclables as numbers. As something to be diverted from disposal or to be recycled with little thought about the impact of the law on supplying raw materials or improving the environment. This has led to the passage of higher and higher recycling goals that have little to do with the reality of using these potential raw materials. 

In our frenzy to meet these higher goals, we keep expanding what is accepted into our recycling programs. We add a product here and a package there, most of which constitute only a very small part of the waste stream. Every time we add a new item, we create confusion about what belongs in the recycling bin. We make it harder to recycle, not easier. Worse yet, we get a little further away from the goal of creating raw materials.

Be honest, do you know absolutely for sure what goes into your recycling bin and what doesn’t? I think I am relatively knowledgeable about recycling, yet I often have to check my county’s list of “ins” and “outs” to be certain. Even when I check the county’s website and look at the list, I am not always certain. And I live in a county with a very good recycling program and solid public education.  

The good news is that some states are taking a fresh look at recycling. They are raising questions regarding why they recycle, what their goals should be and how they can have the most positive impact on the environment through recycling. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) led the way with its publications on sustainable materials management. Then, the State of Oregon stepped up to the plate and adopted sustainable materials management as its new strategy. Recycling and composting are part of the solution, but they are not the only part. Source reduction and avoiding waste have a real seat at the table, not just lip service. An ever-higher recycling goal has been replaced with the idea of figuring out how to best conserve materials and reduce pollution. My home state of Maryland has also adopted this concept. I expect other states will follow the lead of the EPA and the state of Oregon.

Let’s start taking a closer look at the purpose of recycling. Let’s put more emphasis on protecting the environment and less on who can set the highest goals. Let’s figure out what recycling can realistically achieve and how. Then, let’s go out and do it.

Chaz Miller is a longtime veteran of the waste and recycling industry. He can be reached at [email protected].

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