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Recycling is a Mess

August 4, 2019

My information for this blog comes from a variety of sources.  Some of the information may be incorrect.  I welcome corrections.  I have no inside knowledge of recycling in this city.

Our residential recycling system is probably similar to programs in other cities.  We have a blue bin and a black bin.  The city mandates what materials we can put in the blue bin.  It’s primarily food containers, but not plastic bags or polystyrene foam of any sort.  Two companies have a contract to pick up waste.  They also pick up yard waste and garbage.  Both deliver the blue bin contents to a single sort facility.

The sort facility does a crude sort by type of material.  Nobody there looks at the numbers on the bottom of each plastic container.  The result of the sort is many different types of material to be recycled.  All plastic and composites are grouped together.  These are mainly food containers and bottles.  Another group is paper and cardboard, mixed together.  Aluminum cans are separated.  They are mostly soft drink cans and beer cans.  Steel cans, often called tin cans, are separated.  They are mostly food containers.  Glass bottles and jars make up another category.

Most products are crushed and baled for shipment to companies that will pay for them.  Steel cans go to a smelter for steel scrap.  Aluminum cans are melted down and made into thin aluminum sheet that’s used for more cans.

Mixed plastic used to be shipped overseas for additional sorting.  They were sorted by hand in asia, for example.  Now that must be done here.  A major barrier is that the recycling labels on plastic container were not designed for automation.  Those labels must be redesigned.  Until that happens, sorting can only be done by eye and hand.

There’s also a fundamental problem with the design of plastic containers:  They were intended to be discarded, not to be recycled.  Food producers are mainly concerned with keeping the cost of their products as low as possible.  Somebody else will do the recycling.  Only regulations can change this philosophy.

Composites are also a problem.  They require a specialized recycling process.  Most of them are not recycled now.

Many types of waste have no market.  Paper and cardboard is an example.  They might have to be subsidized.  Part of the reason is the shrinking newsprint market.  De-inking used newspaper is too expensive.  Only the cellulose fibre from paper and cardboard can be recycled.  It might be used in products like shingles or insulation.

Glass here has no market.  It’s crushed and stockpiled at the landfill site, all because it’s not economical to recycle glass.

We put recycling material in the blue bin.  Once a week, it disappears.  I suppose most people are content with that arrangement.  What happens to the material afterwards is not their concern.  The city, of course, has to impose a tax to pay for recycling, and has an incentive to keep that tax as low as possible.  I despair that nothing will change in the future.


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