The Richmond Times-Dispatch recently ran an article written by a local environmental advocate who has a habit of calling recycling ‘magic’. To read his post, you would think that effective recycling is one of the easiest things to do. But is it? In principle, yes. Where we run into trouble is practice. If we could somehow manage to align practice and principle, we could recycle just about anything.
In a truly circular economy, recycling really isn’t any different from reusing and repurposing. It is all the same thing. Waste is either greatly reduced or totally eliminated by taking things we don’t need for their original purposes and putting them to use in other ways.
Sometimes that means having a company like Tennessee-based Seraphim Plastics transform a load of industrial plastic cutoffs into regrind that manufacturers turn into new end products. Other times it means property owners making the effort to separate cardboard and paper and guaranteeing it gets to the right recycling provider.
Recycling Isn’t Convenient
The article’s author, Richmond resident Rick Tatnall, lays the blame for our failed recycling efforts at the feet of convenience. He is not wrong. Modern society is obsessed with convenience. We want life to be as easy as humanly possible. So what if that means all those plastic coffee cups head to the local landfill?
For decades, the U.S., Canada, the UK, and other western countries were content to collect recyclables and ship them overseas to China. Out of sight, out of mind. As for the Chinese, they didn’t mind being the world’s dumping ground. At least not until 2018, when they said enough.
The effects of China’s decision to stop accepting everyone else’s rubbish are still being felt some four years after the fact. Here in the U.S., how many municipal recycling programs have been abandoned because there is no market for the materials? A lot.
The fact is that recycling is not convenient. It isn’t terribly hard, but it does require that people participate. Effective recycling requires thought and action. It requires planning. These are all things that run contrary to how most of us want to live our lives.
It Works in Industry
One of the things that Tatnall proposes is changing the way we educate children about recycling. Rather than simply telling them they can save the world with a curbside recycling bin we should be educating them on the industrial model. Industrial recycling works very well. Seraphim Plastics and its competitors stay in business because they make good money doing so.
What is the difference between the industrial and commercial models? Sorting and cleaning. The typical residential model has consumers throwing all their recyclable materials into a curbside bin. Those materials get sorted and cleaned at a recycling center. Incidentally, the extra step of cleaning and sorting costs time and money.
Things are just the opposite in the industrial model. Companies that sell their scrap plastic to Seraphim handle sorting and cleaning themselves. Seraphim rewards them by paying them for their plastic. Still, they spend less paying for scrap than they would if they had to clean and sort themselves.
Residential Recycling Can Work
Industrial recycling is simple and effective. It is financially viable, too. Residential recycling, not so much. We have taken something that should be simple and made it far too complex. And because of that, it doesn’t work.
We can make residential recycling work if we do two things: change the model and abandon our obsession with convenience. Get those two things out of the way and recycling becomes surprisingly easy.