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To Recycle or Not to Recycle: The Economics of Garbage

Image credit: Earth911

People are confused about recycling because they complain that the entire process – from labeling, to which bin is which, to what your municipality accepts - makes it difficult to determine a material’s recyclability. This issue is especially common when consumers are dealing with some of the more complicated recyclable materials such as plastics, but the question persists: What exactly makes a material recyclable or not? Two very different lenses are often used to determine this: science and economics. Which of these factors is more relevant in revealing a material’s chance of being recyclable? Or is it a combination of both?

Before discussing these parameters, it is important to realize that what we consider waste does not even exist in the natural world, where nothing goes to waste. For example, a fox’s droppings help a berry bush grow, a bird will eat those berries, and eventually the bird may end up becoming a meal for the fox. Any “waste” generated in nature is simply a resource to be used by another organism – nature is a truly closed-loop system.

At TerraCycle, we hold the belief that everything is recyclable, or at least has the potential to be recycled. We have already developed recycling processes for many different waste streams previously thought to be non-recyclable: from diapers and cigarette butts to drink pouches and chip bags. The research and development team at TerraCycle has found many ways to recycle, repurpose or upcycle these different types of waste into useful products such as industrial plastic lumber. So why can’t we do this with all of the “waste” we consider non-recyclable?

One of the biggest factors stopping us from being able to recycle all waste is the economic barrier that limits perceived recyclability. To recycle a material, significant quantities of it must first be collected. After collection it must be separated, which can be difficult with waste made of multiple materials like a multi-layered package or container made with a variety of plastic resins. Finally, the material must be processed and recycled. If that entire process costs more than the resulting recycled material would be worth on the open market, it won’t be recycled. Too often it is economics, not science, which determines what we consider non-recyclable.

Yet another barrier to recycling is that the technology and infrastructure required to process and recycle more waste is lacking today. On a local level, recycling systems and curbside collection programs are extremely varied – some accept nearly everything, while others only accept several varieties of material. From a processing perspective, some materials can be particularly difficult to properly separate and process within the current recycling infrastructure. Bioplastics, for example, are a great idea, but there are very few processors in existence capable of properly recycling them.

It’s also important to mention just how vague the sorting process for these different recyclables can be. Many people don’t recycle because they don’t fully understand the process – do I put all plastics in the blue bin labeled “Plastic,” or only #1 and #2? A more standardized, universal recycling infrastructure could help solve this, but the processing and logistical implications of such an idea are a significant economic barrier to overcome. With all of this in mind, it’s easy to see why so many materials are considered non-recyclable or why so many recyclable materials end up in landfills, or worse.

Two non-profit organizations are attacking this issue in very effective manners. How2Recycle is working to standardize on packaging labeling. Their informative labels provide far greater detail than ever before about what type of materials a product or package contains and where it is recyclable. Utilizing a similar tactic, but focusing instead on the recycling bins themselves, Recycle Across America develops and distributes easy to understand labels for recycling bins so consumers know the right place to put their waste!

Of course, one of the best solutions to this problem is to raise awareness. Product manufacturers need to be more conscious of the material and format they use to package their products. By taking steps toward developing greener packaging and distribution, and by teaching people the importance of recycling, consumers will realize the value in materials they previously thought of as garbage.

However, revealing the true nature of waste relies on targeting its final destination: the landfill. Collecting and sending waste to a landfill is a very lucrative disposal method for post-consumer waste. Until that changes and recycling is seen as an economically viable alternative, our ability to recycle will continue to be limited.

While some materials can indeed be difficult to recycle, saying that there are certain forms of waste that are beyond recycling is completely false. Everything is recyclable; it’s just a matter of determining a way to do it in an economically viable way. This is the roadblock we will continue to face moving forward. If we want to open doors to the large-scale recycling of more waste streams, we need to bypass the typical economic barriers that continue to make landfills and incinerators look so attractive.


Tom Szaky is founder and CEO of TerraCycle Inc., a leader in eco-capitalism and upcycling. In 2001, Tom left Princeton University as a freshman to launch a worm-poop-based fertilizer company. In 2007, the company expanded to start collecting difficult-to-recycle… [Read more about Tom Szaky]


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