Recycling, particularly of plastics, has matured in the years since major municipal programs began in earnest. Those early days were plagued by questions of the viability of such programs, and many wondered whether the environmental effect of the recycling process was itself more damaging to the environment than making new products and allowing the old products to fill up the landfills. Whether the skepticism was based on cost, participation or environmental effects, the industry has had to answer some tough questions during the years.
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It’s a common misconception that for-profit recycling centers fund the bulk of the initiatives designed to promote plastics recycling, according to the Ecology Center, a nonprofit environmental think tank founded in 1969. If true, it would be a perfect synergy of the free-market and the common good. Businesses, in this case recycling plants, can make a dollar while serving the public interest. Unfortunately, that is not the case, according to the Ecology Center. In fact, the bulk of the advertising and lobbying dollars come not from the recycling industry, but from the raw material manufacturers. The industry that makes virgin stock for new plastic is the single largest promoter of recycling. It is money spent, the Ecology Center says, to remove the stigma of plastics so consumers buy without guilt, bringing even more of it into the waste stream. Unfortunately, not all plastic is recycled, little of it is biodegradable and plastic consumption increases every year.
The ideal recycling program would be a closed loop. Glass bottles and aluminum cans, for example, are recycled into more glass bottles and aluminum cans. That’s not what happens with the bulk of recycled plastics, however. Resin numbers 1 and 2 are generally not made into more beverage bottles. Instead, they become polyester fibers used in carpets and clothing, or the hard plastic furniture used on patios the world over which are generally sent to the dump at the end of their usable life. The problem is called “downcycling,” which describes a product’s life cycle in going from a more recyclable product to a less recyclable product.
People in the United States recycled 7.1 percent of the plastic consumed in 2008, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s most recent data. Part of the problem is in plastic resin variability. Resin numbers indicate the type of plastic used in the container. They are printed on plastic containers inside the “chasing arrows” symbol. Resin numbers 1 and 2 make up the bulk of the water and soda bottles consumed each year. These resins are easily recycled, and there is a strong post-consumer waste market for the recycled pellets that go to make products such as carpet fibers, plastic furniture and more plastic bottles. Conversely, the market for numbers 3 through 7 is tiny by comparison. The cost associated with processing these products compared with the return available from a lackluster secondary market drives many municipal recycling programs to deny these items, which often sends them straight to the dump.