The recycling markets have been in the spotlight lately for being in a tough spot and that's good because they are. Fuel & oil prices as well as the state of foreign markets play a large role in the current state of recycling and material recovery facilities but the single largest obstacle that MRF's battle every day is contamination. The best part about this is that unlike fuel prices and foreign markets the people recycling have a direct hand in this and can change it.
I think for the most part, we are all pretty bright people who have come to understand that recycling is important for the future of our planet yet the results are still so ugly, why??
Recycling is confusing! It's not so much that the process itself is all that complex but there are just so many variables.
1. The numbers on the bottom of the bottles aren't always a true indicator of what the bottle is made of (at least completely).
There is no real "ruling body" that sets regulations or policies (to police who is placing what numbers on the bottom of each plastic container). Without rules, manufactures decide what they want to put on their bottle. They may have a bottle made of 98.5% #1 (PET) with a remaining amount of "other" material(s) but they choose to place a #1 on the bottom of the bottle, creating recycling issues.
2. Just because there is a number on the bottom doesn't mean it can be recycled.
Recycling is amazing for our environment (and essential) but it is also a business and needs to make economic sense for the facility doing it. If there is no demand for the material by an end user it is likely that the collection site or materials recovery facility may opt not to accept that particular material because without an end user they may need to landfill the item or hold it until a user is discovered. Many times the commodity markets vary and something that was once in demand may become hard to sell - many recyclers will weather the storm and store the material until the markets return. If it takes too long for the market to recover, incoming material is too little (takes too long to gather a full load), or too large (huge amounts of material are received and storage space becomes exhausted) the facility may need to make the choice to stop accepting the item. Items that cannot be resold for recycling and can no longer be stored would need to be land filled which no true recyclers would want to do.
3. Different places can accept different things.
Many recycling facilities and collection sites look alike but can be quite different. Depending on the equipment they have installed some items may be easier or more difficult for them to process; some materials require special permits, specific recovery steps, and specialized equipment. Many businesses and residents alike think that even if the processor says they can't accept it that they'll throw it in the recycling bin anyway... "they're a recycling center they have better resources to recycle it then I do". The truth is that because so much material passes through the facility there just isn't adequate space to store every type of material indefinitely; if the material doesn't has potential to move consistently or doesn't make financial sense it will likely be cut from the accepted list.
4. Different places like to receive materials in different ways.
Caps on, caps off, rinsed, unrinsed, bottles flattened, cans crushed, glass broken, glass whole, paper in bags, paper bundled, and the list goes on and on. Equipment setup will greatly affect the way that a facility wishes to receive recycling based on how they can best process it. Some facilities prefer it in a opposite way of another which makes sense to their operation but confuses those who have read contradictory postings.
5. Just because it can be recycled doesn't mean it can be recycled everywhere.
It is so inspiring to see so many items that can now be reused and recycled. Items we never thought could be salvaged; cigarette butts, juice boxes, waxed cartons, batteries, e-waste; to just list a few. The issue is that although some items IN THE CORRECT PROCESS (that are specifically set up to accept and process special items) can be recycled does not mean they can be recycled universally. A standard materials recovery facility is not equipped to handle any of the above listed "special" items and their inclusion in your recycling will lead to land filling and could contaminate other "true" recyclable items.
6. New materials and copolymers create confusion
In response to plastic litter and waste concerns a soft drink company decided to address the issue by creating a plant based bottle (that was said to not only help reduce the amount of raw materials used to create it but also the ability to be biodegradable). The idea was great, in theory, but unfortunately the idea of recycling this item became extremely complex. It was labeled like any other plastic soft drink bottle, with the same recycling number but it was clearly not made from the same materials. The attempt to do something good for the environment caused a recycling nightmare which could have been eliminated if they were properly labeled (differently than the standard bottles).
So, 6 reasons for confusion spotlighted but where does that leave us... confused?? The only way to understand what your local materials recovery facility or drop off center can take is to ask. They may refuse things that one a few blocks away does not but there is likely a reason. If you are concerned with a specific item that they will not accept inquire both with the MRF as well as looking online for other area locations that may be able to recycle it. It may be a pain and more work but it's our waste and our environment, it's up to us to be sure that it's properly recycled.
Are there areas of recycling confuse you that I didn't touch on? Feel free to comment and we can try to answer your questions.