Guest Post: 10 Things You Should Know about Recycling

By Jack Buffington, Ph.D

You’ve probably heard a thousand times how important it is to apply the “3 R’s” of reduce, reuse, and recycle to lighten your footprint to the environment. We should aspire to consume responsibly, but how effective are these principles in practice? Not as effective as you may believe, despite the alleged science behind recycling. In this article I will present ten things you should know about recycling and why its practices are based upon “junk science”:

1. Aluminum is 100% recyclable, 89% reusable, but is recycled at less than 60%. Due to its material structure, aluminum is the highest of reusable materials for packaging, much higher than plastic and glass. Not only is recycled aluminum highly desirable for can to can reuse, it is easily and efficiently able to be upcycled for other uses in the fields of transportation and building. Yet despite its desirable state, aluminum cans are recycled at less than a 60% rate, despite its market demand, a fault of the recycling system. Every day, millions of aluminum cans are landfilled, despite being the only packaging material that is both economical and environmentally friendly to recycle.

2. Glass packaging can be highly reusable, but is not always efficient to do so. In some cultures, glass packaging is considered the most efficient packaging material because it can be reused up to twenty times before it needs to be reformed. Returnable glass may appear to be the most environmentally friendly container, but not after considering all factors, such as higher fuel costs to ship, energy costs for sterilization, and water use in the process. When all variables are considered, there are mixed opinions from research literature regarding its environmental friendliness. Single use bottles are also heavy to ship, and are only crushed and reused into a new bottle at around a 15% rate due to material science and supply chain economics. When all supply chain factors are considered, multi-use and single use glass containers are not highly reusable.

3. Plastic bottles are recyclable/environmental only from a conceptual point of view. The plastics industry can make a case for reusing plastic bottles at higher rates than present state, but there is scant evidence to support this from a science and economics perspective. Conventional plastic is formed through the use of fossil fuels, which means it’s not a renewable feedstock. Recycled plastic can be used to form a new plastic bottle, but only practical at lower reuse rates, and cannot be reused, bottle to bottle over and over again, as is the case with an aluminum can. Plastic bottles are recycled, bottle to bottle, at a low rate (perhaps up to 15% in practicality), and its disposal is detrimental to the environment due to the leeching of plastic that impacts the environment and safety of animals; there are also concerns whether it is safe for humans, having potential to disrupt endocrine activity. Plastic bottles may be very convenient for consumers, but it is not an environmentally friendly material for use.

4. Bio-Plastic is not (much) more environmental than conventional plastic. Bio-Plastics such as corn and bacteria are advertised as more environmentally friendly than conventional plastic because it has origins from renewable feed stocks, however, these materials have not been found to be any more reusable. There is also an ethical concern in using food products for packaging when there is so much hunger in the world. Developing numerous variations of bio-materials adds complexity to an already inefficient recycling industry in order to sort through many different streams of materials. Beyond being a renewable feedstock, a bio-polymer is still produced as if it were a conventional plastic that is highly resistant to nature, and therefore, difficult to reuse. There are a lot of bad scientific assumptions of how a bottle grown from the soil is green, despite perceptions.

5. Perhaps up to a third of all packaging materials aren’t even attempted to be recycled. Recycling programs are typically focused on conventional packaging materials such as cans and bottles, but there are so many other containers that aren’t considered and factored into recycling/reuse rates. Take-out coffee cups, convenience store and restaurant ‘to go’ cups, Keurig coffee pods, and sippy pouches are just a few of these hybrids that are outside of the recycling rules and regulations. According to my analysis, these packages can be up to a third of the total packaging use, have a zero percent recycling rate, and is not a focus of most, if not all, recycling programs, leading to a problem not factored into the numbers.

6. Zero waste nations of Sweden and Germany do a better job of mitigation, but no better in solving the problem. Recycling proponents often point to the success story of what’s happening in those self-professed zero waste nations, but their success is in landfill waste mitigation rather than true 3R’s, like exists in nature. I know this to be the case because I completed my Ph.D. research in Sweden, one of the most environmental friendly nations on earth. The difference between the U.S. and Sweden is not in the material composition and reuse of its packaging materials, but rather in the residual materials in the U.S. being landfilled while in Sweden, these materials are incinerated for electricity that counts as reuse. In reality, packaging waste from Sweden and the U.S. are similar problems, given that most of our packaging was never designed for recycling.

7. Recycling as a concept isn’t ‘bad science’, but today’s application of it is so. Manmade recycling efforts are often compared to Nature’s process of reduce, reuse, recycle, but there’s a very important difference: Nature’s materials evolved to be recycled within an ecosystem whereas commercial packaging were to resist nature’s impact. Then, after the fact, recycling programs were developed to address the environmental impact of our consumption. Therefore, the concept of recycling, designed after nature, is correct; it’s just the implementation of it in our industrial world that is junk science.

Jack Buffington, Ph.D. is a business leader at MillerCoors, the second largest beer manufacturer in the U.S., and a post-doctoral researcher in supply chain/biotechnology at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden. He is also the author of the book, “The Recycling Myth: Disruptive Innovation to Improve the Environment.”

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12 thoughts on “Guest Post: 10 Things You Should Know about Recycling”

  1. Great comments, guys:

    1) Not sure what happened to the other 3, sorry. I can provide them to you if you want, send me an email.
    2) George, you are probably correct about cullet reuse in glassmaking, but definitely not correct about mass produced glass bottles, I’m afraid.
    3) Tad Chem – unfortunately, urban mining is not cost effective, even though it’s a great concept.
    4) Gerard, you are correct about glass recycling.
    5) Mill Scale, good comment

  2. Our company recycles steel mill by-products. Now the process these materials are destined for may not always be the most environmentally friendly but at least we are accomplishing two steps: keeping millions of tons of materials out of landfills and reducing the amount of energy spent to make NEW materials and products. So we are trading one evil to kill two, in effect. And we make money doing so. This money has allowed us to branch out into much larger and “greener” projects. Such as millions of tons of waste material now up cycled to very useful products, products used worldwide and in very large volumes. It does feel good to make money while helping the environment somewhat, as small as it may be.

  3. Yes, some muncipalities are dumb enough to pay to haul cullet to the landfill. My own, for example. I had a client who wanted to build a glass factory in this area, and who retained me to organize the raw materials. When I approached the local solid waste authority to arrange to purchase their cullet, they self-importantly informed me that there was “no market for cullet”, therefore they crushed it up as a substitute gravel in fill and concrete. When I pointed out that I WAS the market, they were happy to tell me I did not know what I was talking about. So I arranged for cullet to be supplied from a source 250 miles away.

    BTW, cullet is necessary in most glass melting operations in part because it reduces the fuel consumption of the furnace by a large margin vs. using 100% minerals. The savings can be as large as 30%. There are other advantages to using cullet, which any large-scale glass maker will be able to explain.

    BUT, the use of cullet is not simple and straight-forward: It involves a lot of technology, some of which is still to be developed. I filed four patents in this area before I retired.

    And also BTW, I was responsible for mining a landfill a few years back. We were after a certain grade of cullet, and we made a profit.

  4. Glass manufacturers get much of their cullet from their own operations (reject glass). I do not know of any glass recycling system where the price paid for collected cullet covers the cost of collection. In many cases in the USA cullet prices are negative – i.e. municipalities have to pay to take it away. In Europe glass recycling is subsidised by the packaged goods sector. In Australia, glass cullet volumes are controlled by ‘quality’ considerations which means that when cullet volumes are too high cullet is rejected because it does not meet specifications. In any case glass often has to be transported huge distances for it to be recycled. As the ‘break even’ energy is about 100 miles, recycling then uses more energy than it saves. As we are not about to run out of sand – the major component of glass – any time soon, I wonder why we bother.

    Often glass that cannot be recycled by glass companies ends up being ‘recycled’ via other crazy schemes – just so it can be claimed that it is not being landfilled (shock, horror!!). Such schemes include crushing glass for use as road base or as a filter medium (in place of cheaper materials) or even crushed finely to use in place of sand for sandblasting. We live in a crazy world!

  5. There are very few curbside/kerbside collected materials that are recycled sustainably. All recycling activity aims to ‘save’ resources. However all recycling activity also uses other resources as well as human effort (the value of time??) and money. Very few recycling programs are self funding.

    All these factors can be put together using LCA (Life Cycle Assessment/Analysis) . Their outcome depends on how the study boundaries are defined. I have yet to see a study that includes the resources/effort used inside the home.

  6. The answer to the recycling deficiencies is to treat landfills as man-made concentrations of raw materials – ‘ores’ of a kind – and then MINE them. You could get literally all sorts of useful materials out including many different metals, ceramics, plastics, and paper pulp – all in one place. The problem with they way it is done now is that concentrating on only one type of material at a time ignores the so-called ‘economy of scale’ advantage the industrialization has discovered and used to make these things affordable in the first place.

  7. The aluminum thing – I understand. When the states or countries force an extra fee on the cans it becomes marginally worthwhile to recycle. them. But the work to clean cans, sort them, store them, keep them bug free, and then drive down to recycle them once month takes well several hours for maybe a $10 a month benefit (for my household anyway). Time is much better spent doing an extra hour of overtime. We get about $1.70 for a pound of cans where I live. Now if the aluminum is not part of the state redistribution program, and there is no forced CRV, then the cans are almost worthless. I would not, put up with the stink of my cat’s aluminum tuna cans for the 50 cents or so I would get each month. The non-CRV rate is only 37 cents per pound. Interestingly 40 years ago when i was in elementary school, non CRV aluminum was also about 37 cents per pound.

    It just isn’t worth it to save up.

  8. Costs of Recycling:
    1) Collection and Transportation of Recyclables.
    2) Sorting of Recyclables – it’s not just “Paper, Plastic, Glass, Aluminum, other…” because aside from aluminum and glass, there are various grades and qualities of the recyclables that must be taken into consideration before adding to the feedstock stream.
    3) Recycled Plastic (Regrind) does not melt at the same temperature as virgin feedstock – it requires more energy to melt.

    So it’s a combination of wasted energy and dollars when it is inefficient.

  9. I hope Dr. Buffington knows more about plastic recycling than he does about glass recycling, because he is dead wrong about glass. I have published a number of peer-reviewed papers on the subject, and hold one patent on a glass recycling scheme. Waste container glass (cullet, to use the trade term) is highly valued by glassmakers, and, in fact, many will tell you they cannot efficiently make new glass without it. In some areas the recycling rate for cullet exceeds 65%, and would go higher if more was available.

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