Recycling bins

Recycling bins sit inside SERF last fall for students to put various plastic and paper.

“Reduce, reuse, recycle” is a saying many American children grew up with, repeated verbatim to encourage more environmentally friendly mindsets. But what if that adage is wrong? What if recycling isn’t as beneficial as we once supposed?

Some studies report that only 9% of all plastic discarded since the 1950s has been recycled. China, one of the largest buyers of US reuse materials, recently stopped accepting U.S. recyclables. Knoxville’s own recycling center stopped accepting glass in curbside bins, instead having citizens take recyclable glass directly to the recycling center.

This paints a dark image of recycling initiatives gone wrong and of a world where reusable materials go to waste.

However, according to Knoxville and Tennessee recycling experts, the situation is not nearly so dire.

Patience Melnik, the Knoxville Waste and Resources Manager, and Jeffrey Barrie, CEO of the Tennessee Environmental Council, discussed the nature of American recycling initiatives with “The Daily Beacon.”

Recycling, like landfill management, is an industry. As an industry, recycling companies react to market forces of supply, demand and profit maximization. According to Melnik, that is the unfortunate reality of recycling initiatives.

“We all recycle because we want to help the earth and not fill up our landfills. But, at the end of the day, recycling is a business,” Melnik said. “If nobody can pay for folks sorting on the line — if no one can pay for recycling equipment and maintenance of that equipment — there is no recycling.”

Recyclable goods do not go straight from the bin to the shelf as a new product. Recyclables need to be cleaned, sorted and processed by recycling companies. The Knoxville government contracts Westrock to sort and process reusable industry materials. Westrock then needs to find companies willing to buy those recycled materials.

As such, a lack of buyers can significantly halt use of recycled materials.

“At the end of the day, Westrock has to be able to find someone to buy that product; that someone will give that product new life,” Melnik said.

Melnik explained that this is what’s currently happening with China and coastal recycling companies. China recently revised policies on recycling contaminants — unrecyclable materials mixed in with recyclable ones. Companies that once relied on Chinese companies as a buyer could no longer do so and local recycling buyers were few and far between.

“We’ve been seeing news stories about how recycling is in trouble because China’s implemented more stringent guidelines on contamination. The national situation is that there are lots of places that are very progressive — such as California and Portland, Oregon — that were selling to China. When the bottom dropped out on that, they could find no buyers,” Melnik said. “We [Knoxville] weren’t buying from China because we’re landlocked. We had a pretty low loss of regional buyers. The truth of the matter is, we’re fortunate that we have these regional markets.”

Knoxville’s recyclables, as well as many other eastern Tennessee recyclables, go to domestic producers who buy reusable materials.

Recycled steel goes to Gerdau Ameristeel in Knoxville; glass goes to Strategic Glass in Atlanta, GA; Plastics go to Bellhawk Carpet in North Georgia; among other examples

According to Jeff Barrie, the recycling industry also employs many more people than landfill waste. This makes the recycling industry a profitable industry and a valuable employer.

“Trash is a profitable resource for big industries that just dump it, but there is a more profitable industry around those resources that can be cleaned, separated and turned into new products.,” Barrie said.

Whether or not those employees are treated well is another story that requires further research.

Industry landscape changes may lead to greater regional efforts, with recycling agencies finding new ways to get regional companies to purchase.

But what of what gets recycled? Does most of it go to waste? According to the experts, this situation is also not nearly so dire as one might think.

Melnik confirmed the statistic that only 9% of disgraded plastics since the 1950s. However, she explained that plastic is so ubiquitous in modern industry — with plastics of varying shapes, sizes and hardness used to craft goods from forks to printers and car interiors — that it’s impossible to recycle every single type of plastic.

While the 9% statistic does represent all plastics, the ratio of recycled plastics to recyclable plastics is much higher.

“People are horrified by that, but when you think about all the things that plastic’s been used to make, it’s not that terrible a number,” Melnik said. “Though we can certainly do better.”

Many recyclables are thrown out, with contamination being the leading reason.

The sorting, cleaning and processing of recyclables requires specified machinery and labor. If non-recyclable goods get into the machinery, there’s a risk of personal injury and broken tools that render all efforts null.

“Contamination does cause things to not get recycled. One of the biggest issues globally is that people throw trash into the recycling and think it’s getting reused, Barrie said. “If we keep it clean, a much higher percentage of that will be recycled.”

Contaminants exist both on the personal and corporate ends of recycling, with people mistakenly putting non-recyclables into the wrong bins. This results in massive lost opportunities.

“I will say we need to do an audit on our materials, but the standard contamination rate in a curbside recycling bin is 25%,” Melnik said. “Yes, that means a lot of what’s in a bin will go to a landfill, but only because people are putting things in there that they shouldn’t.

Melnik and Barries cited three causes for recycling contamination: corporate misinformation, citizen ignorance and a decreased focus on reuse.

A company’s goal is to get people to buy products and services. As such, companies that use landfill pollutants like plastic want customers to feel good about their purchase. One way they accomplish this is by advertising the “recyclability” of their products.

However, many of these claims are acts of corporate misinformation. While something may be recyclable on paper, most US regions haven’t the resources to process the goods. Plastic bags are a premiere example of this.

“The plastic producers want to paint themselves as environmentally friendly, so they put a little symbol that says ‘recyclable’ [on their goods]. People will put that on plastic bags. Hypothetically, they are recyclable. But in most programs across the US, plastic bags are not recyclable,” Melnik said. “That’s producer confusion. They want people to buy and feel good about their purchase.”

Plastic forks, hard plastics like kitchen ladles, rubber and e-waste plastics are also un-recyclable. Anything that contacts food is un-recyclable, as residue can gum up machinery.

Locally, glass is a massively under-recycled material. One needs to personally take glass to the recycling center, or else risk the material shattering and breaking machinery.

“Glass is not recyclable in our current program in Tennessee. If the recycling brokers find glass in a load of recyclables, they have to take the whole thing off the line and put it into a landfill,” Barrie said. “Glass is a contaminant because it can and does break in the machinery. If it gets to the point where plastic is separated from paper, the glass would shatter and break the machine.”

Many citizens simply don’t know the limits, leading to widespread misinformation and an unnecessary amount of goods going un-recycled.

Melnik suggested that education best on what one can’t recycle would work best, as it would avoid overwhelming amounts of information citizens are expected to personally remember.

Barrie encouraged citizens to treat recycling as a constructive act, as if one were building a garden.

“If you’re trying to create a beautiful lawn, you wouldn’t throw a bunch of weed seeds into your grass mix. You would take the time to find the right kind of seed. You need to make the right consumer choice, and the same goes for recycling if you want it to work,” Barrie said. “Get the right materials in the recycle cart, or else you’re getting weeds in.”

However, the largest detraction is the nature of recycling itself. Recycling is not, and was never meant to be, the solution to excessive waste.

While turning old materials into new mitigates waste, it’s only by not wasting at all that the issue is fixed. As such, Melnik encourages a larger focus on purchasing reusable goods.

“There’s not a way to buy our way out of this problem. The best thing that people can always do is to buy reusable. Recycling is great for the environment, and we should do it as much as we can, but when compared to all the waste we’re constantly producing, it’s kind of a band aid,” Melnik said.

Melnik went further, saying that use of reusable goods is the responsibility of all parties. Good producers need to reused materials just as much as private citizens, and governments need to encourage reuse programs.

Governments, corporations and private citizens are all responsible for our planet’s wellbeing. If lowered pollution is a goal worth caring about, then it’s worth holding companies and governments to task over.

We need producers using recycled content. The market forces for an aluminum can make it so can producers will always buy recycled steel. For plastic, the plastic producers really want to buy virgin plastic,” Melnik said. “People can be that market influence without purchasing habits. Everyone needs to get on board to fix the problem — governments, companies and consumers.”

In summary, the recycling industry is not dying. It’s experiencing rapid changes due to economic forces.

We can all do our part by learning what and what not to recycle. We can also hold companies and corporations accountable for their actions, demanding that they use less polluting measures to make profits.

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