This story is all too familiar to most recyclers. You have a recyclable product, say, an aluminum can or a milk carton. You toss it into your trusty big blue curbside bin—the same bin you’ve been tossing recyclables into for years. The same sort of big blue bin you were taught to throw each and every recyclable product into for as long as you can remember. (You can’t remember anything other than a big blue bin, can you?)
Herein lies the problem that’s plagued the recycling industry for years, one of which most consumers aren’t aware: While your big blue bin acts as a convenient catch-all for all your recyclable goods, on the back-end it creates a web of complexity and expense for the recycling plant. In recycling’s infancy, in nearly every municipality, there were separate bins for plastic, newspaper, glass, and so forth. In hindsight, it should have remained that way. But the industry accepted the premise that what’s easier for the consumer must be the right approach.
It’s this single issue—this sorting issue—that is driving the recycling industry to a halt.
Recycling is not free.
It takes high-maintenance recycling plants. Automation. Machinery. These expenses, combined with the fact that commodity prices of recyclable products, such as newspapers and plastic cartons, has dropped, has blindsided the industry. At the same time, consumer packaging has experienced a major shift—to a thinner, lightweight model.
In other words, it’s taking more recyclables today to get to the same amount of plastic (or aluminum, or paper, etc.) than it did ever before.
How did we get here?
Admittedly, the big blue bins did what they were meant to do: drive participation in recycling programs. Why slow people down with the sorting and cleaning? Collecting items in a single, giant bin was the fastest way to generate interest and create an easy experience for participants.
For most consumers, there was no education on the process that occurred after the recycling truck swung by your house every week. There was no talk about money or sorting; most residents didn’t hear much, if anything, about the contamination that occurred across materials; the challenges at the plants in automating, processing and selling goods.
To top things off, over time many recyclers became a bit brave. With no repercussions, they tossed just about anything into the big blue bin, including rubber items, clothing, shopping bags, and more.
How you can help
The first way you can help is to educate yourself about your recycling program rules. Familiarize yourself with items that can, and can’t, be recycled. Don’t experiment; take the time to sort your items properly. This one step has the potential to have an enormous positive impact on your community’s recycling program.
Second, be prepared for, and be open to, possible new recycling program standards coming your way. As facilities are forced to evaluate ways to reduce their expenses, governments may need to completely refresh the program. This will lead to changes in the way you sort your recyclables, including possibly more work in how you run your household program—but with the potential for major upside for the community and the environment.