What is recycling, anyway?


Recycling is a ubiquitous term. Most people know that it has something to do with making waste more environmentally-friendly. Nearly everyone recognizes its symbol: three arrows, chasing each other’s tails, folded to form the corners of a triangle. But if asked exactly what is recycling, even the most eco-conscious among us may be at a loss for words.

Recycling waiting to be picked up. | Photo by Gabor Degre

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, recycling is the collection and processing of materials that would otherwise be thrown away to turn them into new products (in fact, people are more likely to recycle if they know exactly what those products are). 

Recycling is the third of the “three R’s,” a hierarchical listing of how waste should ideally be managed to best benefit the environment: reduce, reuse and recycle. In other words, after reducing the amount of waste you produce and reusing materials as much as possible (whether its soda bottles, milk jugs, egg cartons or cardboard boxes), recycling is the last eco-friendly option for waste before it goes into the landfill.

There are a number of different recycling methods, from multi-stream to integrated collection, each with their own specifications. Even so, all recycling processes share a few basic steps.

Step 1: Disposal

Large recycling bins adorn the sidewalk outside a multiunit building. | Photo by Troy R. Bennett

You toss your recyclables in the recycling bin. Recycling rules that determine what can be recycled in your area vary depending on where you live. Call your city or county office, or visit your local municipality’s website to figure out what can be recycled by you.

Step 2: Collection

City workers feed the truck with large recycling containers from a multiunit building. | Photo by Troy R. Bennett

Recyclables are collected either with regular curbside collection or because you drop them off at a recycling facility. Again, collection varies depending on where you live, so contact a city official or check local online waste management resources.

Step 3: Sorting and cleaning

A worker guiding cans and bottles onto an automated sorting machine at Clynk, a supermarket based recycling company. | Photo by Troy R. Bennett

Recyclables are sent to a recovery facility to be sorted and cleaned. Sorting can be done in a number of ways, including manually by employees or through a variety of different technologies, including vacuums, magnets and rotating trommels that filter objects by size and weight. Some materials are not able to be processed because they are made of certain materials, like polystyrene, are too contaminated or because the facility in your area is not equipped to process them with the technologies they have available. Usually, unprocessable materials are sent to a landfill.

Step 4: Processing

Kevin Roche, general manager of ecomaine, a recycling and trash-to-energy facility in Portland, stands in front of a bale of recyclable cardboard material. | Photo by Troy R. Bennett

Recyclables are either processed on-site at the facility, or grouped and gathered into bales and sold to a third party that will process the materials into new products. Like any other raw materials, prices for bales of recycled materials fluctuate depending on supply and demand, both domestically and internationally. 

Step 5: Closing the loop

You close the recycling loop by buying new products made from recycled or “post-consumer” materials. 

The problems with recycling

Recycling is lauded for reducing the need for the consumption of new raw materials, curbing pollution and reducing waste. Recycling also creates jobs. According to the EPA’s 2016 Recycling Economic Information Study, the industry accounts for 757,000 American jobs.

In practice, though, recycling is far from perfect. Improperly recycled materials still end up in landfills. Critics of recycling also cite the false sense of security that it gives consumers about their personal waste contribution that dissuade them from practicing the other two R’s: reducing and reusing.

A worker removes tangled plastic shopping bags from a clogged machine at a recycling facility. The giant apparatus, which separates plastic from paper, must be shut down every day for up to 90 minutes so workers can remove the bags by hand. | Photo by Troy R. Bennett

In 2018, the recycling industry also encountered a major roadblock: China, once the largest buyer of recycled materials, recently tightened restrictions on what materials they accept. Many recycling facilities are still coping with the loss of markets, as bales of recyclable plastics languish, unprocessed, in centers around the world, hoping that willing buyers will soon emerge.

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