Do you recycle? I’m guessing most of you reading this article probably answered yes, just like I did. We rinse jars and peel labels and flatten cardboard. It feels good and no wonder, for years, we’ve been told endlessly by public awareness campaigns, municipalities, and environmentalists that recycling is important – and it is. But, what happens to the jars, the paper, the cardboard and the plastic after it leaves our homes?
What happens to the giant bins filled with recycling. Who sorts it? How is it processed? And, most importantly, who pays for it?
The last point is incredibly important because recycling doesn’t work unless someone wants the end product. It doesn’t work unless someone wants to buy all of the glass, plastic, metal and paper that we toss into our blue bins. It’s a side of recycling that we don’t think much about, but we must if it is going to continue working.
Lately, dropping commodity prices mean that while recycling is still good, it’s becoming far less profitable than it once was. As much as we’d like businesses to operate for the greater good, businesses are staffed by people who like to get paid, just like we do. Falling profits mean that for some haulers and processors, recycling is starting to cost more money than it earns.
Rising costs come, in part, from contamination in the recycling streams, with one hauler estimating that contamination has doubled in the last ten years. This means more time spent by staff sorting and removing these out of place bits and pieces, and more recycling loads being wasted due to contamination. One-bin systems in many cities have meant more efficient recycling process for consumers and pickup processes for haulers, but it’s also increased confusion about what you can and can’t recycle. Awareness campaigns aim to reduce this contamination, but for the time being it still remains an issue driving costs up for processors.
Additionally, commodity prices have fallen by half in the past four years. What this means, is that once a processor has sorted and processed a batch of recycled plastic, for example, it’s being sold for half of what it once was. Not many companies can survive a 50% reduction to their bottom line, and the recycling industry is no exception.
What this likely means is that in some municipalities, consumers may be asked to share the costs of recycling in order for the program to continue. If you think this sounds worrisome, you’re right. I firmly believe that in order for the masses to embrace Eco-friendly change, it must be free and it must be easy. Charging for recycling may change the amount of people buying into recycling programs, and it’s a change which municipalities must carefully consider before implementing.
One solution, which remains both free and easy, is to simply reduce consumption. Yes, recycling is fantastic, but don’t forget that reduce is the first R. Being able to recycle plastic or cardboard packaging is one of our greatest weapons against pollution and overflowing landfills, but not having any plastic or cardboard to recycle in the first place makes a far bigger, far better impact. This is especially important as recycling has been promoted to the point where, increasingly, there is simply more supply of recycled items than there is demand for them.
What can you do? Refuse packaging, reduce consumption, educate yourself about what you can and cannot recycle within your own municipality, and if, in the future, you do have to shoulder some of the financial cost for your local recycling program, consider it a donation to mother nature. She doesn’t issue tax receipts but she’s grateful, I promise.