All the ways recycling is broken—and how to fix them

You may throw a plastic container in the recycling bin and assume it’s going to easily become a new item. But every step of our recycling system—from product design to collection to sorting—has major flaws. Fortunately, promising technology is starting to come online that could revolutionize the process.
By Adele Peters – You may have read that there’s a recycling crisis in the U.S. After years of accepting our used plastic and cardboard, China now won’t take it, which often means there is no place for it to go. Some city recycling programs—unable to find other buyers—have quietly started sending recyclables to incinerators or landfills, news that could make anyone question the point of separating your trash at all.

Each year, by one estimate, Americans throw out around 22 million tons of products that could have been recycled. Tens of millions of homes don’t have access to recycling; for those that do, everything from broken blenders to old clothing still ends up in the trash. If you drop an empty package in a recycling bin and it’s trucked off to a sorting facility, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee it will be recycled. You might have unwittingly tossed something that your local recycling service doesn’t accept, or the package might have been designed in a way that makes it unrecyclable.

Some parts of the system do work. The aluminum in a beer can, for example, can easily be made into new beer cans, over and over again. But a plastic package might be chopped up, melted, mixed with other types of plastic, and “downcycled” into a lower-quality material that can only be used for certain products, like park benches or black plastic planters.

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When the U.S. was sending much of its paper and plastic trash to China, for more than two decades, the bales were often so poorly sorted that they contained garbage. The system never extracted the full value from those materials.

When a truck picks up recyclables from curbside bins, they take them to sorting facilities. Inside these centers, called “MRFs” or materials recycling facilities, people work with automated equipment to sort through the detritus of everyday life. Trucks dump mixed materials into the facility, where it’s loaded onto a conveyor belt; typically, in a first step, people standing next to the machine quickly pull out trash and materials like plastic bags that can jam equipment.

As materials move through a facility, the system uses gravity, screens, filters, and other techniques to separate out paper, metal, glass, and plastics; optical sorting equipment identifies each type of plastic. more>

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