Recycling is not just a thing; it is a system and process for renewing the life of a used material. It supports a more “circular economy.” A Circular Economy is an economic system aimed at eliminating waste and the continual use of resources. In any recycling process, there are five key elements: Consumers, Haulers, Sorters, Reprocessors, and End Markets. That makes “recycling” somewhat complicated; but understanding it will make us better at recycling.
There is more than one way to recycle in communities, but for the sake of this article, we will focus on curbside recycling.
What you put in the curbside recycle bin or apartment recycling dumpster matters. When a resident knows what to throw in the recycling container and the condition the materials should be in when they are tossed, they create better economics for the system as a whole. For those who “recycle everything” in their curbside container, they are actually creating poor economic value for the whole system. To understand why this is and to learn how you can better support a circular economy, let’s look at the 5 steps of recycling from curbside collection to the end market.
1. CONSUMERS PROVIDE THE MATERIALS
As consumers, we generate a lot of items (i.e. packaging, clothing, toys, etc) that we no longer need or want, and some of it can be recycled. But not everything is recyclable, so as the generators of these items we have an important role to only give the recycling system what it can handle, and in a condition that is acceptable. Today more products are made of blends and a mix of materials, more than before. The recycling symbol found on products and packaging may also confuse consumers. The symbol with a little number in it indicates the type of plastic resin in the product, but not the recyclability of the item. Read the previous blog on “The Truth Behind the Chasing Arrows” for more details on that.
Despite the challenges of today’s recycling, curbside recycling programs remain an economical way of collecting material from households for recycling. Much of these materials (not all) can be reprocessed and made into a new product. That creates an environmental benefit by conserving natural materials instead of extracting raw materials to make new products. Recycling creates more local jobs for a community than simply disposing items in the landfill. It has been found that recycling and other zero waste strategies create an average of ten times more jobs than landfills and incinerators per ton of material handled. (www.ecocyclesolutionshub.org/about-zero-wate/jobs-eco-imact/) Plus, there is more efficiency in repurposing an item for reuse, if possible, than disposing it in the landfill.
Consumers are a very important driver in this system. Therefore, it is important to learn what is acceptable by our local recycling program and follow instructions for preparing the items for collection. Do not place items in the recycle bin that are not requested from your local MRF. And be sure materials are in good condition.
2. HAULERS COLLECT MATERIALS
Garbage trucks already frequent the streets for collections. Having a recycling truck or a dual system truck to collect both materials for recycling and waste helps communities manage their waste and reclaim materials that may be recycled. Additionally, more local jobs are created as a result.
3. SORTING MATERIALS
The Recycling Center, better known as the Material Recovery Facility (MRF), sorts marketable materials. A MRF will seek manufacturers interested in purchasing these materials for reprocessing, and eventual, end uses. In this way, you can think of a MRF as functioning like a business. They sort material as best they can to a manufacturer’s specifications. Quality control during this process is important in order to get the best prices. As consumers, if we send MRFs items that are too contaminated or “dirty” or, perhaps, not even wanted by a manufacturer, then items must be sorted out as waste and disposed of in the landfill. This creates inefficiency in the system.
The quality materials are sorted and most often bundled by material type into dense blocks called bales. Each bale could weigh one ton or more. These bales are typically shipped via semi-trucks, heading on to the next step in the supply chain.
Like all markets, there are fluctuations of supply and demand for these materials. The location of the reprocessors (the next step in this circular system) that want these materials and transportation costs matter. The closer MRFs are to reprocessors, the more economical it is for the whole supply chain.
Reprocessors are manufacturers that accept material to make into a usable form for repurposing. These are the paper mills, glass beneficiaries, aluminum mills, etc. that accept or purchase materials from MRFs. For instance, a paper mill will purchase baled recyclable paper, pulp it, remove contaminates like tapes, stickers, and staples, and then make huge rolls of clean paper for repurposing. For plastics, material from a MRF may be melted down and made into “pellets” that are more easily used by manufacturers to make a new product.
5. END USE MARKETS
Materials from the reprocessors are most often sent to another manufacturer that melts, cuts, or molds material into a new form preparing it for the market. Ultimately, recycled materials are finalized at this stage and sent to stores for consumers to purchase.
As you can see in this cyclic supply chain, consumers like you and me are VERY important. The supply chain depends on us to both drive the demand for products containing recycled content, and to provide quality materials back into the system for recycling. We, the people, drive this cyclic system supplying the materials from our waste at home and demanding products made with recycled content. That is powerful!
So, it is important to keep our stream of recyclable materials coming into the system clean so we can generate better efficiencies throughout the process. In the next article, the top contaminates found in recyclables from curbside collection bins will be shared, in addition to, tips for becoming a better recycler.
For more information, follow the weekly recycling tips by the Central Wisconsin Recycling Collective (Facebook: www.facebook.com/CWRecyclingCollective or online: www.cwrecyclingcollective.com) or check with your local MRF to learn what specific materials they want and follow their guidelines for preparing materials for recycling.
Advancing Sustainable Materials Management 2017 Fact Sheet (EPA Nov. 2019) https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2019-11/documents/2017_facts_and_figures_fact_sheet_final.pdf
Astrx Review of Material Flow at MRFs and Reprocessors. (2019) https://astrx.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/ASTRX-Review-of-Material-Flow-at-MRFs-and-Reprocessors.pdf
Briefing on job creation potential in re-use sector (RReuse, Sept. 2015) http://www.rreuse.org/wp-content/uploads/Final-briefing-on-reuse-jobs-website-2.pdf
Jobs & Economic Impact. Eco-cycle Solutions. Accessed from https://www.ecocyclesolutionshub.org/about-zero-waste/jobs-eco-impact/ on Sept, 16, 2020