For most of us, recycling is something we do because we care about the environment – or more generally, because we believe it’s wise to conserve energy and natural resources; to use them responsibly – to minimize waste and so forth. We participate in a curbside recycling program that involves “harvesting” various items from our household waste: cans, bottles, jars, junk mail, packing boxes, etc. We separate these items from the trash, toss them into a recycling barrel, and wheel all this material down to the street, for pick-up on collection day. We trust (or hope) that these “recyclables” will be turned into brand-new products, made from recycled metal, plastic, paper, cardboard, and glass. Thus, we seek to reduce the demand for “virgin” material, which means less digging, drilling, clear-cutting – all of this, in the interest of conserving precious natural resources (especially those that take thousands – or even millions – of years for the earth to replenish).
We may view recycling as our civic duty. There is virtue in this: Conservation is a noble ideal. Or we may simply try to do our part because it’s expected of us; or because we pay for curbside recycling, whether we want to or not. Whatever the motive, have you ever wondered what really happens to the stuff you throw into that blue barrel? Have you ever had a sense of doubt or uncertainty about whether something really can – or will – be recycled? Have you ever had a sneaking suspicion that, at the end of the day, despite your best efforts, your “recyclables” may end up in the landfill, anyway, along with all the other trash we throw away, so indiscriminately?
The truth is that a significant percentage of what we put into our recycling containers, as much as 20% or more, does end up in the landfill. But don’t despair. This doesn’t mean that household recycling is not worth the effort. As a matter of fact, residential recycling is one of the most efficient ways – and in many cases, it’s the only way – to ensure that consumer goods are recycled, to the full extent possible. We are an essential link in the chain of recycling. How strong a link we are determines, to a large extent, how much of our household “waste” gets recycled; and how much gets buried in the earth.
“Single-stream” recycling makes it more convenient to separate recyclables from the trash. (“Single-stream” simply means that you can put all your recyclable material – metal, plastic, paper, cardboard, glass – into one container. You don’t have to subdivide it into categories anymore – one for cans, another for plastic containers and such.) Waste disposal companies (or municipalities) hoist all this material into their trucks, then haul it to a recovery facility, where workers and machinery sort it, compress it into bales, and ship it off to buyers – both domestic and international.
Make no mistake: recycling is a business (which we will examine in more detail, in future articles). This means that the stuff you toss into your blue barrel (or community bin) will be recycled only if it can be sold, for a profit, to a third party. That’s why it must be sorted first. Anything that has little or no market value is considered “residue” (a euphemism for “garbage”). Ultimately, it gets hauled off to the landfill, just as if it had been thrown into the trash to begin with. This is, unfortunately, a waste of resources, and represents a cost that is inevitably passed on to consumers – you and me.
Part two of this article will be included in next month’s issue, the title will be “What’s in your barrel?”