‘Not Recyclable’ and ‘Not Recycled’ Are Two Different Things

December 5, 2023 by No Comments

I have been writing about industrial plastic recycling for years. Going back even further, I first heard about plastic recycling as a kid back in the mid-1970s. Recycling has been part of the public discussion for decades. Unfortunately, the discussion has been marred by disingenuous language that either doesn’t tell the whole story or is intended to mislead.

Take the terms ‘not recyclable’ and ‘not recycled’, for example. They mean different things. To use them interchangeably is to be inaccurate in the message you are trying to convey. Yet that is exactly what happens when people on both sides of the recycling debate try to present their positions as absolute.

Only a Fraction Gets Recycled

Data clearly demonstrates that only a fraction of the world’s consumer plastics get recycled every year. The actual number is less than 10%. So even when we throw our plastics in a recycling bin and put them to the curb for collection, we are merely utilizing an extra step on the road to the landfill. Most of those plastics collected at the curb end up going to the dump.

Here’s the thing: one news report after another claims that most consumer plastics are not recyclable. In other words, they cannot be recycled. But that is not true. Just because a municipal recycling program or private-sector waste hauler chooses to send curbside plastics to the dump does not mean they cannot be recycled. It means decision-makers have chosen to landfill them for whatever reason.

Anything Can Be Recycled

Truth be told, anything can be recycled if someone wants to do it. We are not compelled to throw a single thing into a landfill. Food waste can be composted. Paper can be broken down and reconstituted as new paper. Glass can be crushed, processed, and turned into new glass products. The list goes on and on.

Every type of plastic humanity creates could be recycled if someone had the will to do it. The fact that so much plastic is not recycled has nothing to do with ability or technology. It is all about money.

In simple terms, we can produce virgin plastic more cheaply than we can recycle take-out food containers, condiment bottles, consumer packaging, etc. So ultimately, trying to recycle consumer products becomes a money losing proposition. That is why we don’t do it. It is not that we can’t, it’s that we don’t want to lose money in the process.

Industrial Plastics Get Recycled

If you struggle to believe that money is the issue, take a look at what happens in the industrial sector. Take a look at Seraphim Plastics, a Memphis, TN company that buys and recycles industrial scrap plastic in seven states. They have been doing it for years. Other companies scattered around the country do the same thing.

The majority of post-industrial plastic waste gets recycled through mechanical recycling methods. Industrial plastic recycling works because it is a profitable venture. Seraphim does it because they make good money from it. Likewise for their competition.

Denying the Economics Doesn’t Work

It is easy for activists to blame the plastics industry for allegedly lying to the public about plastic. It’s easy to point the finger at manufacturers, blaming them for the alleged plastic pollution problem. But in reality, it’s all about the economics. Denying it doesn’t change anything. Denying the economics is to deny reality.

Just because consumer plastics are not recycled in large volumes doesn’t mean they can’t be. If we are truly serious about changing things, it is going to cost a lot of money. Are we willing to pay more for everything we buy?

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