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As Long as We Remember...

July 1, 2008

Recycling’s Flip Side – Part 1

Farrell Keough

Is recycling a misnomer? In other words, do we actually recycle our waste and containers; or do we just transport them to someone else and feel good about our actions?


Is the process somewhat endless; or does recycling of many products mean a one time action only to produce something returned which can no longer go through the recycling process?


To begin, this column is a collaboration. A friend of mine, Rolan Clark, has provided me with extensive information on this topic. It seems very few people have actually taken the time to review if what we send out to be recycled does in fact help the planet; and does it actually continue the use of the product.


Mr. Clark has spent countless hours reviewing all sorts of information and data to make a determination. He has requested “hard data” from both the EPA and various members of Congress on just what happens once the blue bin is retrieved. Nothing has been forthcoming.


This column, therefore, is based on a wide selection of current data. The choice of wording is mine, so if you find this rather abrasive, don’t blame Mr. Clark. References for this series of articles will be posted in the final column on Thursday.


We will focus primarily on plastics and paper. Items like metals, glass, and many building/construction materials are – in fact – being recycled. They are either being reused or melted into new products which can be used over and over. Copper wiring is a prime example. Note: glass currently has issues with breakage and color mixing, but the potential is still strong.


Does this legitimate recycling lessen the carbon footprint? Well, that is another article all together. Regular readers are aware that I have serious issues with man-made Global Warming and whether a carbon footprint is in fact harming our planet. But, for the sake of this column, let’s not argue the point of carbon footprint and simply deal with the available information regarding whether recycling of plastics and paper truly is beneficial to the planet.


Let’s start with some basics. “Recycled bottles are not made into new bottles – they’re used for lower grade plastics to build things like playgrounds – but a new machine may change that!” * This sounds great, but one must delve a bit further into the specifics to find out just what this means.


“…unlike glass or metal which can be repeatedly recycled without any significant loss in quality or contamination. [T]he average number of cycles that a recycled plastic can undergo is dependent upon the blend ratio (recovered material: virgin material) and the number of recycling operations carried out. [T]his usually ranges from one to three cycles…  [I]n reality however, contaminants from the packaging's contents and from the recycling process make this not to be true and therefore only small quantities of recycled plastic material are suitable for re-use in food packaging applications. [S]ince plastics melt at a relatively low temperature they retain pollutants and the residue of their former contents…  [I]f recycled plastics are not used for the same or equivalent application as their original they are said to be 'down-cycled' into much less valuable products and commodities such as plastic lumber and fibres. Approximately 70% of post-consumer PET waste ends up being shredded and recycled as PET fibres. This diminishes the value of recycling them and perhaps contributes to the fact that the amount being recycled is actually decreasing despite a greater public awareness and participation in recycling.   [W]hile recycling reduces the amount of waste that is either buried or burned, it is only a temporary solution as ultimately the plastic material will have to be disposed of unless we can recycle it with 100% efficiency…  [W]hat is also surprising is that in the west virgin plastic is cheaper than recycled material, making no economic incentive for companies to use recovered plastic, only the sense of a moral responsibility can.” **


In short, very few recycled plastic can be used for its original purpose. But, to understand this, we must take a bit of time to describe what types of plastic are being used. Here is a simplified explanation.


PET : polyethylene terephthalate. This is designated by a numeric system from 1 – 7. For the standard recycling techniques, numbers 1 and 2 are useful. Numbers above that will ruin the batch.


HDPE (high-density polyethylene) & PVC (polyvinyl chloride). Most people know what PVC is; your water pipes, for example. HDPE are products like bleach bottles and heavier plastics. ***


Obviously there is a plethora of other types, but these two basic designations are enough to inform us as to what actually occurs during the recycling process.


For instance, a PET 1 soda bottle may have an HDPE cap. Hence, the cap must be removed before any recycling process can occur. Also, some bottles have a base of a different plastic than the main container.


In short, sorting the bottles by a service is not enough to actually accomplish the process. Not only does extensive cutting machinery need to be employed, (or in some instances, 3rd World Nation employment of the poor) but this does not even begin to deal with the cleaning and waste product from this process.


Why is this designation important? Well, a full batch of PET 1 or 2 is totally ruined if a PET 6 bottle is thrown into the mix. This is serious business since only a small amount of recycled material is actually used in the process of producing new containers.


For instance, if a foreign nation allows recycled plastic into their food container products, most of the plastic is virgin with a mix (often around 25%) incorporated into the process. With such a small percent, losing a batch due to plastics which do not recycle well together is a huge loss. But, this is getting ahead of the information.


In t0morrow’s column we will describe, very generally, how the process of actually recycling paper works. We will give some ideas of cost in terms of marketability, and determine if we are in fact recycling or simply receiving our own waste back in a different form.


* Science Daily – Recycling Revolution Turning Old Plastic Bottles into Valuable Recycled Materials

** DesignBoom – PET bottles

*** – Where does your recycled bottle go?

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