Most of us want to do our bit to save resources. We understand, at least on some level, the risks of climate change, we’ve seen pictures of the ocean garbage patches and sea birds dead with bellies full of plastic and turtles trapped in beer can holders.
We might not be motivated enough to head out and start harvesting plastics from the ocean like Boyan Slat of Ocean Cleanup (I’ve got a family and a mortgage to deal with as well) but like most good citizens of the western world you’ve got two or three bins in your kitchen. One for rubbish, one for recyclables, sometimes one for organics and most of us know not to put in the Friday night pizza box or our daily single-use coffee cup.
We wheel the appropriate bins to the curb once a week or once a fortnight depending where you live and the truck picks them up. Job done, I’m recycling an entire bin full of plastics, glass and paper to be recycled into new plastic, glass and paper items, making a small but important contribution to saving the planet...
But have you ever stopped to think what happens after the collection truck comes by? Where does it all go and how much of it is actually recycled back into new products of the same value: 100%, 75%... less than 50%?
Where does all the recycling go?
The collection trucks deposit the contents of the recycling bins in a large pile at a Material Recovery Facility where the mixed materials are cleaned and sorted as best as possible before being bundled into one tonne bales to be sold onto material processors who prepare it for sale to a manufacturer.
Unfortunately, in the west we produce much more waste than the material processors want. This creates a buyers’ market so they can pick and choose the best quality materials. Quite often the best quality plastic, glass and paper doesn’t come from your recycling bin but from bottle deposit schemes where the glass and plastic is cleaner and sorted by type and colour before shipping.
So, if the processors won’t buy bales that have come from recycling bins, they need to go elsewhere. Until 2017, that elsewhere was China. The bales were loaded into cargo containers and shipped to China where labourers would pick through the bales to separate the useful materials from the rubbish that made it through the original sorting system.
China has been the destination for around 45% of the world’s plastic waste since 1992. The US alone was shipping around 4,000 containers a day. But in 2017 all that stopped. China introduced a ban on these low quality material bales, sending the rest of the world scrambling to figure out what to do with steadily increasing stockpiles…. It’s a problem that still hasn’t been resolved.
But don’t we already have a recycling rate of around 60%?
Every few years, government agencies report on the recycling rate for their countries. The number often comes in at around 60% mark, which sounds good.
Unfortunately, when you scratch below the surface of these figures you find out they are heavily skewed by several factors.
Firstly, the numbers are all calculated by weight – and 80% of that weight is contributed by industry and construction. Secondly, these reports usually refer to the amount of materials that were collected for recycling – rather than the amount that was actually recycled.
But 60% still sounds good….
Lets give a practical example of what this all means. Picture a large steel beam being lifted into position on a building site by a crane. How many full recycling bins would it take to offset the weight of that single beam – it’s quite a few, right?
Using current definitions, if we send the contents of all of those recycling bins to a hole in the ground but send that one steel beam to be melted down we have a ‘recycling rate’ of 50%....
A 60% recycling rate doesn’t sound quite so impressive anymore.
Recycling reports provide percentage (%) figures. In fact, very little of the stuff you carefully put in your household bins is truly recycled. Even less is remanufactured into new products of the same or similar value.
Clear PET bottles that are used for soda and water are the most valuable plastic commodity in recycling. But, for every ten (10) bottles you put in your recycling bin, half end up in landfill or incinerated under the guise of ‘energy recovery’. At best, four (4) are used in products that will not be recycled a second time - such as synthetic carpet base, insulation or packing straps.
On average, less than one (1) is used as recycled content in new PET bottles. Recycling a used PET bottle back into a new PET bottle is known as ‘closed-loop’ recycling. And close-loop recycling is the type of recycling that delivers real environmental and financial benefits.
Of the plastics in your US, UK or Australian recycling trash can or bin on average at best 10% are ‘closed-loop’ recycled. In some localities, especially where there are bottle bill systems in place, for example in eleven US States, various European countries and two Australian States, close-loop recycling percentages can be higher. PET industry bodies, PETCORE in Europe and NAPCOR in the US give PET closed-loop recycling at 9% and 6% respectively.
Recycled glass is an incredible material. First, it reduces the amount of energy required to manufacture new glass. Secondly, it can be recycled forever with no loss in performance. That is, if the colours and types of glass are separated to 100% purity.
However, our recycling system delivers a significant amount of mixed colour glass. It’s not economical to sort and recover different colours of glass.
So around 40% of the glass in your bin ends up being used either as road base or as ‘alternative daily cover’ (ADC) that is, it’s used instead of dirt to cover a layer of landfill. But in many places ADC is still actually classed as recycling.
For every 10 glass bottles in your recycling bin, almost half of this endlessly recyclable commodity is either buried under tarmac or crushed and sprinkled over the landfilled plastics and lost forever. At best only 2 out of 10 are used in making new glass bottles.
Aluminium and Steel-Tin Cans
Metals both ferrous (steel) and non-ferrous (aluminium) are the proverbial low hanging fruit in curb-side recycling because they can be easily extracted and sorted using magnets.
Recycling aluminum cans saves 95% of the energy required to make the same amount of aluminum from a virgin source, so its recovery and recycling is important.
Recycling steel cans uses 75% less energy than producing them from raw materials. Saving this energy could make a significant contribution to reducing emissions.
The extraction of these materials from municipal solid waste is simple in principle. First, powerful magnets are used to extract the ferrous (magnetic) metals from the waste stream. The non-ferrous (non-magnetic) metals are extracted later by applying an eddy current to the sorting system which repels the non-ferrous materials, forcing them into a different waste stream.
The recycling process for metals can tolerate a relatively high degree of contamination. Paper labels, printing ink, adhesives, etc, are all removed by the very high temperatures required by the smelting process.
So, in theory, the material recovery facilities should be extracting almost all of the aluminium and steel from our waste?
Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Whilst the recovery of these materials is generally higher than plastics or glass it still falls short. From a UK Government Report, the figure is 69% leaving 230,000 tonnes of packaging metals unrecovered in 2016 .
Even this 69% is a deceptive figure. Prior to 2015, this metal-recovery rate was below 50% until the reporting method was changed to include metals recovered from incinerator bottom ash (IBA). So the increased percentage is due to the increased use of Energy from Waste (incineration) replacing the more traditional landfill practices.
The Sum Total of Our Recycling Effort Is a Sorry Story
So, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but here’s the real deal about all your efforts to recycle.
40% of all your PET containers – wasting 60%
40% of all your glass bottles – wasting 60%
69% of all your metal cans – wasting 31%
The real deal about the environmentally and financially beneficial closed-loop recycling looks a lot worse:
10% of all your PET containers – 90% not closed-loop recycled
20% of all your glass bottles – 80% not closed-loop recycled
69% of all your metal cans – 31% not closed-loop recycled
And that’s not even counting the almost total waste of your paper and cardboard, which is mainly sent straight to landfill.
The main source of the problem is the comingling of the materials in your domestic recycling bin. In spite of fantastic equipment in the materials recovery facility, it’s just too expensive to sort and process the re-usable materials from the unusable.
Bottle banks which sort materials at the collection point have a higher rate of recycling. These improved rates depend on where you live. If you live in one of the eleven US bottle bill states, or in South Australia or Europe or Norway the recycling percentages can be higher.
That’s why we at ReCircle Recycling are so committed to producing a domestic recycling appliance that will ensure that all your plastic, glass and metal is kept pure so that it can be closed-loop recycled.
The ReCircle Recycling Solution
ReCircle Recycling is developing world's first 100% closed-loop domestic recycling appliance. The ReCircle appliance will keep plastics, glass and metals separate so that it can wash, process and compact them – producing valuable, 100% pure closed-loop recycled products ready for manufacturers to purchase and use again in new products.
The ReCircle system will play a pivotal role in empowering households to deliver and benefit from the circular economy. The circular economy is where the re-use of our used-materials is maximised for closed-loop recycling, ensuring the amount of waste we produce is the absolute minimum. This means that far less virgin material is required to produce the billions of containers we use every day.
Take a look at this short introductory video for an overview of the ReCircle system:
To stay informed about ReCircle’s campaign to advance the Circular Economy and see how you can get involved, please enter your details below: