Simplicity Is the Key to Successful Recycling


The world has been talking about recycling for the better part of 50 years. So if we all want to see recycling succeed, why does it fail so often? Simply put, recycling is too complicated. Simplifying it is the only way to make it succeed.

Before you roll your eyes in disbelief, the complexity of recycling has little to do with the little bit of effort it takes to put recyclables to the curb. But even that is more complex than it needs to be. What we are really talking about is how complicated it is to actually recover materials people send in for recycling. It is a lot more complicated than many think.

Recycling Plastics Is Confusing

A perfect example illustrating how confusing recycling can be rests in the codes you find on plastic containers. You’ve seen them. They consist of the universal recycling symbol with a number in the center. Most people assume that any bottle with the symbol is recyclable. But this is not true.

The numbering system was developed as a way to identify the primary resin in a plastic product. Numbers are applied to help human sorters quickly distinguish between different types of plastic. But not all plastics are recycled. In some places, only numbers 1 and 2 plastics are recycled. In other places, they only recycle number 7 plastics. All others are sent to the landfill.

The thing is that consumers don’t know this. They are confused by the symbols, and rightly so. Why? Because no one has ever taken the time to explain it. But wait. That’s not all. The confusion runs much deeper.

Recycling PET Products

Most of us know enough about recycling to understand that plastic water bottles made from PET are easily recycled. What we fail to realize is that just a little bit of contamination can render a collection of bottles useless.

To maintain cost-effective PET recycling, material reclaimers need to receive clean, empty bottles isolated from all other plastics. Otherwise, they have to spend too much time and money on sorting and cleaning. Then the effort becomes impractical and financially prohibitive.

Consumers don’t know this. They also don’t know how easy it is to contaminate a plastic water bottle. They do not understand that stuffing a candy bar wrapper into a water bottle, then throwing that water bottle into recycling bin, will likely result in the entire bin of plastic being discarded. If the contaminated bottle makes it to the recycling center undetected, putting the bottle through a shredder can contaminate the entire load.

Simplicity Solves the Problem

So how do we simplify recycling? By using our heads. Seraphim Plastics is a Tennessee company that specializes in post-industrial plastic waste. One of the reasons they are so successful is that they require plastics to be separated before they purchase. They don’t have to do any sorting.

They also don’t have to clean the plastics they purchase. Materials come to them in a fairly clean state. They need only run recycled material through metal detectors and magnets to remove metal contaminants.

In Japan, a well-known water bottler has come up with an automatic machine for recycling PET bottles. The machine is purposely transparent so as to allow users to watch their bottles being compressed. Transparency also allows them to see when a box has been contaminated, thereby encouraging them to avoid doing so.

Their efforts have been successful thus far. Likewise, the efforts of companies like Seraphim Plastics produce outstanding results. They are both making it work by keeping things simple. That is the key to successful recycling.