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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Recycling is broken. Should I even bother?



When it comes to recycling, every little bit helps. But doing it wrong can actually make matters worse. (Naomi Anderson-Subryan/The New York Times)

By Winston Choi-Schagrin


Recycling can have big environmental benefits. For one thing, it keeps unwanted objects out of landfills or incinerators, where they can produce potent greenhouse gases and potentially hazardous pollutants.


Even more important, recycling allows us to extract fewer resources. The amount of energy required to recycle aluminum, for example, is less than 5% of the energy needed to mine new ore from the ground. Similarly, the more paper we recycle, the fewer trees we cut down.


But recycling rates in the United States have remained stubbornly flat for years. And, in some cases, they’re dismal. Just 10% of plastics are actually recycled. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of tons of recyclable waste are exported, often to developing countries.


It’s no wonder a lot of readers have asked us whether individual efforts make any difference at all. To answer that question, it helps to understand how the system works and how people use it.


Why is recycling struggling?


The way the system is set up, recycling is a business. And our recyclables — metals, paper and plastics — are commodities.


When you throw something into the blue bin, whether it’s recyclable or not, it gets carted off to a sorting plant where it runs along a conveyor belt and gets grouped with similar items. Then, the recyclable stuff is bundled. The process is labor-intensive.


One of the biggest challenges is that companies don’t want their material contaminated with things they don’t recycle or can’t recycle. The more random stuff that goes into a sorting plant, the more work facilities need to do to weed it out. And that increases costs.


Once that’s done, if the plant can find a buyer at a price that makes sense, the bundles will be shipped off to a recycling plant. Sometimes a local one, and sometimes one as far away as Africa or Southeast Asia. If they can’t, everything goes into a landfill or gets incinerated.


Some items are easy. Others, not so much.


Recycling metals makes a lot of sense from an economic perspective, for the reasons outlined above. It’s just a lot cheaper than scraping ore from the ground. And, metals like aluminum can be endlessly recycled.


It also makes environmental sense. Mining contaminates soil and waterways. Recycling aluminum cans requires just a small fraction of the energy and water that mining does.


And recycling paper helps keep forests intact. Paper packaging accounts for around 10% of global logging, according to the forest conservation group Canopy. We save water, energy and greenhouse gas emissions when we recycle compared with products made from new pulp.


With glass and plastics, however, things start to get complicated.


Although intact glass is endlessly recyclable (the process has been around since Roman times) it often gets crushed or damaged on its way to sorting facilities, lowering its quality and sometimes rendering it unusable.


And “plastics” is an umbrella term for a seemingly endless number of different compounds with different chemicals and additives that can determine every attribute from color to stiffness.


That’s a problem for recyclers. Different kinds of plastic can’t be melted down together, so they have to be painstakingly, and expensively, sorted by color and composition.


Also: Plastics, if recycled at all, are usually “downcycled” into garden furniture or plastic fiber for insulation, after which it’s no longer recyclable. Recycling plastics again and again isn’t usually possible.


The result is that manufacturers often opt for new plastic, made from the plentiful byproducts of oil and gas, because it’s cheaper and easier.


Small solutions, big solutions


One way to improve recycling is to regulate what can be sold in the first place. Almost three dozen countries in Africa have banned single-use plastics. And 170 countries have pledged to “significantly reduce” the use of plastics by 2030.


Another way is with technology, said Cody Marshall, the chief system optimization officer at The Recycling Partnership, a national nonprofit organization. More sorting plants are adopting better optical scanners that can detect a greater variety of plastics. (That technology is improving, but it’s still imperfect.)


When you do buy things, consider whether you can recycle the packaging. When choosing drinks, metal containers are generally better than plastics. When you shop online, you can sometimes ask for less packaging, as with Amazon’s “frustration-free” option. And remember the first two Rs: reduce and reuse.


Although these are small things you can do, the reality is that recycling’s challenges are systemic.


So, is it worth the effort?


In theory, every item you recycle can keep resources in the ground, avoid greenhouse gases and help keep the environment healthy. And that’s all good.


“The value is in displacing virgin materials,” said Reid Lifset, a research scholar at Yale’s School of the Environment.


But here’s the critical part: Don’t wish-cycle.


Follow the instructions provided by your local hauler. If you throw in stuff they don’t want, the effort needed to weed it out makes it less likely that anything will get recycled at all.

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