Has been published Wednesday, February 1, 2012 Next »

Taking a Good Look at What’s in the Recycling Bin

Getting good quality recyclable material from the public is far from straightforward, given human behavior. Consider the bizarre objects found in collection bins -- or even just the common-but-still-inappropriate items you notice in your neighbors’ curbside recycling bins every week. Enough contamination with unreclaimable material can make an entire truckload of “recyclable” material a waste of time to sort through and separate. So how can this first step in the recycling process be improved?


1.) Creating new deposit laws covering more kinds of plastic items is one approach. But in Massachusetts and other places, opponents argue that expanded deposit programs are not cost-effective, compared with curbside collection.


2.) Greater government support may help the entire recycling loop become more efficient, though efforts more than just legislated resolutions are needed – that is, real laws or real money – to make dramatic improvements in recycling behaviors and rates. For example, it seems clear that different governmental actions, and/or changes in a community’s culture, can increase the amount of material collected. (Meanwhile, showing that recycling creates jobs doesn’t hurt!)


3.) Creating more collection points for specific recyclables helps, as does greater consumer interest in recycling. These trends are said to be improving the rates of collection for plastic bottles in the USA at least, though much more effort will be required for increasing the collection rates of other packaging.


4.) Meanwhile, methods are being developed to recover normally unrecyclable plastics in the bin. Plastics-to-fuel conversion may be the ultimate “technological fix” for the issue. But, as someone with a chemical engineering background reminded me recently, the amount of energy used in converting the plastics to fuel must be low enough for a process to make sense.


These won’t totally solve the problem of people putting inappropriate items into recycling bins – although these people’s actions show that at least they want to recycle. And they want the industry to be able to recycle all the materials they throw out. Someday perhaps.


Mike Tolinski is the author of Plastics and Sustainability, published in Oct. 2011 by Wiley-Scrivener, and he is Contributing Editor for Plastics Engineering magazine of the Society of Plastics Engineers in the USA. His views have been shaped by his engineering, university, and journalism experience in the plastics and manufacturing industries over the past 21 years.