Sorting Out the Recycling System

“Nature knows how to recycle itself, decomposing waste back into the soil to continue the circle of growth. We should follow its lead.”

So writes Beth Porter in her book, Reduce, Reuse, Reimagine: Sorting Out the Recycling System (Rowman & Littlefield, 217 pages). Porter makes the case that, “A functional recycling system can boost our economy by providing manufacturers with the means to generate new products and benefits the environment by reducing the demand to extract raw materials.”

She begins with some historical perspective on recycling, beginning with World War II scrap drives in the U.S. This was a time when patriotism and community spirit helped drive recycling to levels beyond what economic self-interest could muster. Porter then takes us on a tour of the development of the postwar throwaway culture and how it led to the landfill crisis of the 1980s and the growth of recycling in the 1990s. Covering much ground quickly, the first three chapters provide a brief and informative overview of how we got here. But this book aims for more than that. Porter strives to provide insight into the current state of affairs and how things might be improved.

Why Reduce and Reuse Come First: With source reduction and reuse, items are borrowed, shared, or not consumed in the first place. Anything purchased that cannot be reused or recycled will need to be disposed of in a landfill, burned in a waste-to-energy facility, or piled up around you. The goal of avoiding those three outcomes has simply become known as “Zero Waste.” However, as Porter points out, this “is not actually about arriving at zero, since living in our society means making some amount of waste.” She describes Zero Waste as “an aspirational journey where we take a closer look at the things we buy, the frequency we buy them, and the amount of waste we generate.”

What’s the Point of Recycling? Landfills are expensive to build and operate. In addition, decomposition of waste in the low-oxygen environment of a landfill produces methane, which traps 86 times as much atmospheric heat as carbon dioxide. In the U.S., landfills produce more methane than any source other than natural gas production and agriculture. While recycling keeps materials out of landfills and thus reduces methane production, its greatest benefits are in avoiding the economic and environmental costs of raw material extraction and production. Porter writes, “Producing one ton of 100% recycled copy paper requires 40% less energy and produces 55% fewer greenhouse gases than the same amount made from virgin fiber. It also saves 53% of the water, and, of course, saves 100% of the wood fiber needed for virgin production.”

Where Your Recyclables Go: “Once you know the journey recyclables go on after they leave our homes,” Porter notes, “it’s easier to foresee problems of putting incorrect items in the bin, despite our good intentions and the extra bin space we might be eager to fill.” Over the last decade or so, many Americans have gained access to curbside recycling service where all recyclables are mixed together in a single bin, referred to in the industry as “single-stream” recycling. “The single-stream method of tossing all recyclables into one bin (ideally) removes all the guesswork of sorting so more people participate.” However, Porter notes, “Contamination is one of the main barriers keeping our recycling system from its full potential.” And, while single-stream recycling collection results in more volume, it also increases the residue removed at the Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs) where recyclables are separated and baled for shipment to processors. Porter goes on to detail the processing of recycled plastics, aluminum, steel, glass, and paper.

Economics of Recycling: Recyclables are part of an international commodity market and for many years one of the primary consumers of those commodities has been China. However, in 2013, China established limits for contamination of these materials and began rejecting some shipments in an initiative called “Green Fence.” Then, in 2017, they announced a “National Sword” policy whereby they limited contamination to 0.5% of each shipment and banned 24 types of materials altogether. This abrupt closure of the Chinese market to recyclable materials from the U.S. has resulted in extreme challenges for recycling markets in our country. “But,” according to Porter, “this is an opportunity to reimagine our system. We can respond with more consumer education on best practices to reduce contamination and innovate in processing technologies.” She also suggests urging producer companies to increase their use of recycled content and to identify new, creative end markets for these materials, particularly domestic markets. The primary piece of the economic puzzle is demand driven, however. “For recycling to thrive, we, the customers, must demand recycled products to close the loop of our actions. Tossing our discarded goods in the bin is only part of our role, but if there’s no interest from consumers, then companies have less incentive to use recycled materials.”

Taking Action: Finally, Porter encourages us to take action. As individuals, we are instrumental in both “harvesting” the recycled materials and in creating a demand for them. “Most systems are only as worthwhile as their inputs, and recycling is no exception. In short, we get out what we put into recycling. Many problems in our recycling system come from people’s misinterpretations of the process, and fortunately, this can be fixed.” She provides tips on how to become expert at what is recyclable in your area and how to inspire others to do the same.

Since this book was published, Beth Porter has been interviewed for several podcasts and media stories. To learn more about her work or to find some of those interviews, visit her web page.

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