The Recycling Process, Part I: Collection

I’m a chemist by training, and I work in the plastics industry.  For five years I worked on the recycling of plastic, developing technology and marketing new products.

All recycling happens in four steps: finding and collecting what you want, separating what you want from what you don’t want, cleaning it up, and preparing it so someone will buy it. And the last step is mandatory: it’s not recycled until someone buys it as a new product.

Dr. Bill Carroll introduces plastics and the recycling process in the first part of a video series for the American Chemical Society

Many people tell me they recycle: “Oh, yes. I put everything out in a blue bin at the curb.” Well, that’s not really recycling. That’s throwing it away in a blue wastebasket. Recycling is everything that happens after that.

But this first step, collection, is how most people encounter recycling. Postconsumer recycling occurs when recyclable garbage is diverted from the landfill. Collection happens in three main ways: I can take items from you, I can go get them from you, or I can pick them up where you threw them away.

Taking it from you: Usually this means bringing a container back to the store for a deposit refund. A deposit is money the store collects from you when you buy the container, then refunds to you when you bring it back. Because you have a financial stake, you have an incentive to bring the container back. And deposits do work to bring containers back; however, not everyone likes them. Stores, for example, have to handle the money and what amounts to garbage when you return the containers. They’re not crazy about this. And while deposits work for containers, they don’t work for everything.

Getting it from you: This is collection from the blue bin at the curb using a truck I send out. In some cases everything must be sorted at the curb by you or by a special truck. With other systems everything is dumped into a garbage truck to be separated into different types of materials at a central place. This type is called “commingled” collection and is becoming most common.

Picking it up where you threw it away: In principle, a great place to look for garbage is a landfill. Now everything’s all mixed up there, and it’s kind of dirty and disgusting, but you could still mine it for useful things. That doesn’t happen much in the United States, but in developing countries it’s a primary means of recycling and also a source of employment. Scavengers are people who live and work on landfills. They pick out valuable materials and send them back into a commercial stream. I grant you, sorting garbage on a landfill doesn’t sound like a marvelous career, but in some places without good collection infrastructure, it works.

Collection - Part 1 of the Recycling Process

There are a number of variations of these three scenarios, but what is absolutely true is you can’t have viable recycling unless you get stuff to recycle. Lots of it. And it all starts with a good collection system.

In future postings, more on the other three steps in the process.

Bill Carroll is vice president of industry issues for Occidental Chemical Corporation in Dallas, an adjunct professor of chemistry at Indiana University, and a former president of the American Chemical Society. He operated a plastics recycling business for OxyChem between 1989 and 1994.

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