Why are some things recyclable and others are not? It’s all about economics

Many people recycle, but I often wonder how much we understand about WHY we recycle.

Recycling is about more than just keeping things out of the landfill, although that is a big part of the reason why we do it. What I find most interesting is not the WHY to recycle, but WHY certain things are recyclable and others are not. The answer is invariably economics.
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In Lexington, we can recycle all colored glass (wine bottles, jelly jars) but not Pyrex or ceramic plates; we can recycle plastic bottles and jugs but not yogurt or peanut butter containers; we can recycle most paper, including junk mail and colored copy paper, but not wrapping paper. It does not always make sense.

Everything is recyclable; it just may not be recyclable in our community. The most common comment I get is that if the container has a recycling symbol on the bottom, it must be recyclable. And that is, in part, true – it just depends on which community you are talking about. In Lexington, we have the volume and infrastructure in place to process and sell plastic bottles and jugs. The numbers on the bottom, in the middle of the recycling symbol, are actually code for the plastic industry, and not for the recyclers, and they generally don’t tell you whether an item can be recycled.

Again, it all goes back to economics. Is the item able to be easily separated from all of the other recyclables? Is the item able to be sold at a rate that surpasses the expense of shipping it to its destination? These are the most important questions that dictate whether an item can be recycled in a particular area.

A good example is glass. Glass, even when crushed, is very expensive to haul. It is easily made into new products, but for the most part, it is more expensive to ship it to a plant that takes used glass and makes new bottles than it is to send it to a landfill. In Lexington, we generally pulverize our glass and use it in road bed material, which makes the most economic sense locally.

Plastic is another good example. There is a great market for No. 1 and No. 2 plastics that take the form of a bottle or jug (water bottles, shampoo bottle, milk jugs). This means that the plastic that was used to make those materials was blown into a mold (glass) rather than injected into a mold (Starbucks cup or yogurt container). This makes the plastic more marketable and more marketable means that municipal sorting facilities have the chance to make their money back after sorting and baling these plastics.

Aluminum is the easy one. Aluminum cans (soda, beer) are the most recyclable container available. Most products can be recycled into something that is of lesser value than it started out as. For example, nice white copy paper can be recycled into newsprint which can then be recycled into toilet paper (The process stops there, thankfully!). Aluminum cans can be made into another can and then another and another, which helps keep the price of a bale of aluminum cans at a premium. Cans from Lexington, and from much of the state, go to Novellis in Berea, one of the largest aluminum smelters in the country.

Cardboard is another item that is easily recyclable – that is that it is easy to make into other useful products and it is fairly light/easy to ship. Cardboard from Lexington goes to a paper mill in Maysville to be made into new corrugated cardboard boxes. However, refrigerated boxes (soft drink boxes, pizza boxes) cannot be recycled. These have little bits of plastic impregnated between the layers of boxboard that make recycling harder and therefore less economically viable.

There are a few places in the United States that can recycle almost everything. Some even mandate recycling and food waste composting. We are far from that in Lexington, but I think it is helpful to understand why some things can be recycled here and others cannot. It may help us all understand how we can affect our waste stream.

Next time you are at the grocery store, think about how what you are buying will affect your trash can. Can you buy in bulk to reduce the amount sent to the landfill? Can you buy a gallon milk jug that can be recycled instead of a half-gallon that has to be sent to the garbage? Can you reuse the bag that held your bread instead of throwing it away? Because to-go coffee containers cannot be recycled, can you bring your own mug and maybe even save a few cents?

We all have the ability to effect great change in our local community. Knowing how and what and why to recycle is one very important way to start. Talk to your local solid waste coordinator, or click here to find out what can be recycled in Lexington.
1 Amy-Sohner

Amy Sohner is executive director of Greensource and a graduate of the University of Kentucky. Sohner has worked with Greensource since its inception in 2002 and is a Certified Environmental Educator. She is involved with the Kentucky Environmental Literacy Alliance, the Bluegrass Rain Garden Alliance, the Licking and Kentucky River Basin Teams, and serves as vice-chair of the Keep Lexington Beautiful Commission. Sohner lives near the Kentucky River palisades with her husband, two daughters and a multitude of pets.

This article appeared in KY Forward on September 4, 2014.

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