There is a saying that “You haven’t really recycled until you’ve bought recycled products.” This suggests that recycling is only the first step in a broader cycle where re-processing and re-manufacturing also play vital roles. In fact, the universal recycle symbol of “chasing arrows” represents the 3 stages of recycling: collection, processing and market development.
Improvements are required throughout the recycling ecosystem. Some changes must be behavioral. For example, individuals can contribute by recycling more eligible items, especially toxic e-waste such as old cell phones and computers. Other changes must be structural. For instance, municipalities can institute more single-stream curbside recycling programs that conveniently allow residents to mix recyclables in one pickup container. It is well documented that single-stream recycling benefits both the environment by increasing collection rates and the local economy by decreasing garbage disposal costs.
However, increasing recycling rates alone will not result in a healthy recycled economy. Market development, which includes the design, manufacturing and marketing of products, is required to complete the recycling loop. Much of the solution to this problem lies with the advancement of clean technology to bolster the recycling infrastructure.
It is a fact that U.S. recycling rates are low. In 2008, only 7.1% of the 30.05 million tons of plastic waste in America was recycled. Compare this to the plastics recycling rate of around 70% found in leading countries such as Germany and Japan. It is doubly disturbing that that the U.S. government and American companies have dragged their feet in market development for the recycled industry. Investments in energy efficient processing and production technologies that convert recycled feedstock into new raw materials will generate more practical and quality products that meet consumer needs.
Some states have attempted to jumpstart the stalled recycling economy. Until it began teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, California was issuing up to $20 million a year in grants for recycling market development. Similar initiatives have been launched elsewhere, including Ohio, Arizona and Indiana. These grants are intended to develop the local infrastructure to compete in the promising multi-billion dollar global recycling market.
Make no mistake: strong demand for America’s recyclables already exists – overseas. It is estimated that 76% of California’s polyethylene terephthalate (PET, the dynamic material found in beverage containers) is exported to China. Once transported overseas, the recycled feedstock is converted into a variety of products ranging from plastic lumber to carpeting to textiles. Many of these value-added consumables are sold back to U.S. buyers at a hefty premium.
In the process, domestic “green-collar” jobs are being squandered. These positions could be filled by American people in local factories operating green machines. The possibilities are illustrated by Blue Mountain Recycling, which is a full-service recycler in Philadelphia that has invested millions in cutting-edge technologies to transform recycled waste into valuable end products. Blue Mountain employs 27 people and processes 10,000 tons of material per month. Ventures like Blue Mountain are both good for the economy and beneficial to the environment. This principle is driving the new generation of American social business.
Consumers can lend their support to stimulating the domestic recycled market. Promising signs have surfaced. A survey conducted by the Natural Marketing Institutefound that 81% of Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability consumers (the “green” market segment) completely agree with using products made from recycled materials (compared to 27% for non-LOHAS consumers). A host of small businesses have emerged to heed the consumer call, while progressive large businesses are also evolving. Grocery giant Whole Foods recently announced that it was incorporating new packaging guidelines that include using only recycled plastic in the containers of its store-brand vitamins and supplements. According to statistics from Harvard University, using recycled plastics instead of virgin raw materials to manufacture products saves 70% of the energy by comparison. While the precise figure may be debated, there is no debate that it is smart to eliminate the most energy-intensive and polluting steps of plastic production – extracting and processing virgin oil or natural gas from the ground.
Environmental Attorney Douglas P. Wheeler asserts, “To halt the decline of an ecosystem, it is necessary to think like an ecosystem.” A fragmented recycling system only moves trash around or, more frankly, promotes glorified hoarding. To complete the recycling loop, we need a coalescence of political willpower, consumer consciousness, business leadership and technological innovation. Taken together, these forces put the “cycle” back in recycling.
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