From the Publisher: Let’s End Wishful Recycling

Why do we have all these companies making money from recycling, while the cities and counties collecting and sending the materials are losing money?

Ben YoungIt was great to read this month’s “Catching Up” with Novelis CEO Steve Fisher (page 90). As far as the processing end of recycling goes, business is booming. In addition to Novelis, many other recycling companies are based in or have big operations in Georgia, and the sector is only getting bigger.

Strategic Materials is now the biggest glass recycler in North America with 40 locations, including in College Park and Atlanta. Georgia’s paper industry recycles nearly 8% of all the paper consumed in the United States due to the presence of companies like Atlanta’s Georgia Pacific and Greif, a global company with a location in Aus- tell. Seven paper mills in Georgia use only recycled materials to create new paper products.

One-third of all plastic beverage containers recycled in North America come to Georgia, where many are made into carpet. Headquartered in Dalton, Shaw Industries Group Inc. even recycles used carpet to manufacture new carpet products for a closed-loop system. Other plastic recycling companies include PureCycle in Augusta and Revalyu Resources in Statesboro.

In 2021 alone, Georgia saw 10 project locations related to the recycling sector, creating 1,230 jobs and $1.8 billion in investment.

Unfortunately, recycling in practice – on the source end – has taken some big hits in the past few years. In 2017, China announced it would stop im- porting most materials for recycling, and destination markets for plastic scrap similarly shut down in India and other countries. Additionally, unavailable workers caused many domestic recycling plants to shut down or stall during the pandemic.

Publisher Ben Young Georgia TrendUnderlying these external factors was the fact that much of the material being collected was contaminated. Savannah Now reported in 2021 that of the 8,000 tons of recycling the city collected and sent to local company PRATT for recycling, 25% was contaminated – a contributing factor in making the entire process a loss for the city. That’s not too much more than other places like Athens, which has about a 17% contamination rate, with the biggest culprits being food waste, film plastic and Styrofoam.

There are good intentions here. In Savannah, the recycling participation rate is nearly 50%. And I can relate to repercussions of the recycler mindset. You become so used to recycling, it pains you to throw anything away. That greasy piece of plastic I can’t get clean just can’t go to the landfill. So goes the “wishful recycling” result of hoping the company can figure it out.

Then there is single-stream recycling, which puts the onus on the receiving company to sort materials. I could never go back, but I’m afraid this system opened the door for many to feel okay just throwing anything in there, even plastic bags that can gum up machines used to collect the materials.

And let’s remember that once items are collected, they are sorted by real people. They aren’t going to know what to do with our nasty stuff any more than we are. So there is low morale involved in what should be a proud experience – saving the planet.

Some might argue that with eco changes of the magnitude we’re facing, one person’s decision about whether to recycle – and recycle wisely – isn’t going to make a difference.

First, consider that 20% of human-driven methane production comes from trash. Then, consider the giant plastic island floating in the Pacific Ocean, which is three times the size of France.

Finally, I believe that broader eco-consciousness – which affects other decisions, such as whether to use a combustion engine – starts with these small steps, and to ignore them is to return to a time when people littered indiscriminately.

So as we ponder this dilemma – why do we have all these companies making money from recycling, while the cities and counties collecting and sending the materials are losing money? – consider our own role in the process. Georgia Recycling Coalition has a great resource page with a breakdown of the various systems of collecting, which vary from place to place.

Don’t be intimidated by all the different rules or by your own deeply held “wishful recycling” sentiments. “When in doubt, throw it out” may be hard to put to practice if, like me, you’re used to bringing home stuff from places that don’t offer recycling so you can do it at home. But on nearly every level, from China to your local recycling vendor, contamination is a very big deal.

If we really want this to work – and we should – let’s learn to recycle better together.

Categories: From the Publisher, Opinions