What is Recycling?
Recycling is a method that takes the useful material in waste products and transforms them into raw materials to be used in future products. Products that can be recycled include various forms of plastics, paper, metals, and glass. These materials are sent to a recycling center and get sorted through many different types of machine to be processed and broken down to make new materials.
The recycling movement started in the 1980s in New York. People began to start to separate out their trash and recyclables to be picked up curbside weekly. The recycling movement was at first slow because people were unsure if it was too expensive to be sustainable in the future. Some of the costs that this included was the transportation of the recycled materials, paying all the new employees, and the costs and energy it would take to break down the materials. Year after year, the recycling companies made this process more efficient and proved that it is beneficial for both the economy and the environment to recycle. Different materials vary when it comes to the amount of energy it would save to use recycled materials. For example, aluminum uses 96% less energy when using recycled materials, which is obviously much more efficient to use. With other materials, such as glass, you only save 21% the amount of energy to reuse the old glass. Other materials will be somewhere in that range but overall there is a positive effect on the efficiency of producing new products when you use recycled materials.
When examining data from Jeffery Morris, there is no doubt that recycling limits our negative impact on the environment. He found that “it takes 10.4 million Btu to manufacture products from a ton of recyclables, compared to 23.3 million Btu for virgin materials. And all of the collecting, hauling and processing of those recyclables adds just 0.9 million Btu.” (1)
Now with the knowledge of how environmentally helpful recycling is, it is also important to look at the economic effect. With all the research done, it came out that recycling is slightly more expensive then just brining all the trash to a landfill and disposing of it. The numbers are constantly changing with the economy but the estimate is that it costs $150 per ton of recycled materials while it would only take $50 a ton to just take the trash to the landfill.
Single Streamed vs Dual Stream recycling
With new technology developing it is becoming easier and easier to recycle in our daily lives. With the previous system of recycling, it was essential to separate your recyclables into the different categories, such as, plastic, metals, cardboard, etc. With the new system for recycling that is put in place in 700 of the 10,000 collection services there is single- streamed recycling, which allows for the consumer to put all recycled materials in one pile. Although it cost almost double to switch and continue to use the single streamed method, it has increased production a significantly and has also saved money. Using this method increases the yearly pay from consumers by $3, which isn’t a huge effect for the economy. Single steamed is more efficient for two main reasons. One of these reasons is the fact that most of the energy that is consumed in the recycling is from the collection services. The collection uses about 60% of the total energy it takes to recycle materials so if you cut back on the time each truck is transporting the recyclables, it will use less energy and be more cost efficient. The picture below shows the different types of materials that can be placed into the single stream recycling system which consists of most products that we use in our daily lives.
There are benefits to the single streamed recycling system that are both economic and environmental. One main reason why this system is beneficial is that it increases the amount of Americans that do recycle. It is helpful to just have one place to put all the materials that can be broken down and reused fast and easily, which the single stream allows for. In studies it has been shown to double the amount of recyclables that are collected during a curbside pick up. One benefit of the dual stream recycling system is that it usually produces better materials. Once the recycled materials make it through all the machinery to turn it into raw products it is then sold to paper mills or large manufactures but for some of the materials the quality is too low to be reused for the intended reason. When the quality is too low, this is called downcylcing. Downcycling is when products have to be sold at a lower price or even be sent to a landfill to get disposed of. For example, glass is one of the materials that usually get downcycled because it is broken or it is just cheaper to produce it using virgin materials. “ On average, 40% of glass from single-stream collection winds up in landfills, while 20% is small broken glass … used for low-end applications. Only 40% is recycled into containers and fiberglass.”(3). As you can see in the charts below, the unadjusted recycling rates for different counties in florida have increased a decent amount when transitioning from the dual stream to the single streamed recycling system.
How does Recycling Work?
The process of recycling is conducted in many different steps. When finding information I came across this list of 10 things that happen to metal when it is recycled that shows the efficiency, process, and different areas that energy would be used in this system. For example, when analyzing the different steps that a recycled can goes through it is about 10 various processes that it must undergo to be a full cycle recycled product. Once a person recycles a can, or any other recyclable product, it gets transported to a recycling facility. In a single stream recycling system, the facility uses a magnet to separate the metals from the non-metals which then takes them into their corresponding systems. The aluminum from cans is taken to a system that breaks down the cans and makes them into smaller pieces that are melted down and cleaned to be used to make more cans. The melted aluminum is then put into ingots which are practically molds that help the aluminum be shipped to companies to incorporate into their systems. When the products finally get transported to the factories they are molded into the new aluminum that they then use to produce more cans. Then the process starts all over again(2).
As seen in this brief diagram above of the different areas of recycling there are many different uses of the raw materials that are produced when you recycle. Some other examples of other materials include ways that Plastic, glass, and paper are reused in society. When examining the process that plastic bottles go through it was interesting to find information about the cleanliness of the bottles that are recycled. It was stated that bottles that are half full or that have food or other substances in them throw off the recycling process because it is harder to break down the plastic and makes for the plastic to be possibly become a downcycled material. One plastic bottle that contains a substance other than plastic will most likely cause for the entire process to be ruined and all the bottles in the same part of the process will have to get taken to the landfill. For glass, the recycled material is used to produce and package solids or liquid food such as pasta sauce., wine or beer bottles, or coffee cups. Overall, the plastic recycling market is continuing to grow and become more efficient. About 31% of plastic bottles are recycled every year and this saves about 76% of the energy it would have taken to produce virgin plastic bottles. Paper and cardboard are similar in the sense that they need to be clean to be properly processed. For the vast majority of paper and cardboard products they are reused to package foods or make boxes, paper towels, and printing paper. Below is a ted talk that explains why and how recycling plastic is essential in our society today because it is the material that is the least recycled. Only 10% of plastic is recycled while about 90% of metal is recycled.
Overall, recycling is a process that in the long run is very sustainable and will continue to be used for many years to come. The efficiency and technology that helps the recycling in the United States will continue to get better year after year. Recycling will also continue to help reduce our environmental impact that our generation leaves on the earth. With the issue of landfills not being sustainable in the future as there will just be too much waste and not enough space to put all the trash, it is essential that our recycling systems stays and continues to grow in our society. One main area that I think can improve our recycling system is to market recycled materials more and provide better resources to citizens all over the country to be able to recycle their products. Some areas to improve on include teaching younger people about the different types of products that can and should be recycled so they are aware from a early age how to appropriately dispose of their trash. Another way is to have more systems that collect recycled items such as old technology, batteries, and light bulbs that most people don’t know how or where to recycle these, as they are a good source of many chemical and mineral elements. To conclude I think that the United States has done a good job in increasing the amount of money and resources that are put towards recycling in the past 20 years but it is important that this movement continues to grow in the future. It is also essential in our society that our communities are conscious of what products we buy and learn to look at the labels to see if they are made using recycled products so that we can benefit our environment and reduce our footprint even further. So, do your part in helping save our environment and reduce, reuse, and recycle your products. To further your knowledge, watch this short video that fully explains WHY recycling actually helps and how it is crucial we continue to make this process more efficient and sustainable in the future.