April 19, 2021
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Many of us are familiar with recycling. Children are taught the three R’s in school, we ask “Where’s your recycling?” when visiting friends, and participate in municipal programs to prevent litter, save resources, and help the environment.
Recycling is an impactful habit that makes a difference every day. The challenge is that standard curbside recycling programs are incredibly confusing. What is accepted varies from region to region (even town to town!), very few items are accepted, and sources say much of what we try to recycle through standard programs nowadays gets tossed in the trash anyway.
Why are there so many obstacles to our items being recycled, and what can be done to ensure more products and packaging aren’t thrown “away” to landfills (essentially, land sites where garbage is dumped or buried) or incinerators (where garbage goes to burn)?
What is recycling?
For starters, let’s define what recycling actually is: the collection of discarded items (also known as “waste”) and their transformation into material for new products. Recycling reduces the use of new, “virgin” material and the need to extract additional resources from the earth. There are many ways to use resources instead of throwing them away. However, unlike waste to energy (using discards as a fuel source for heat or electricity) or upcycling (changing the function of an item without breaking it down, also known as “creative reuse”), recycling breaks down recovered material to build it back into something entirely new. It’s kind of magical!
So, what’s the problem?
There are key ingredients to the magic of recycling that are essential to its success, and if one is missing, it falls apart. Even if something is technically recyclable (more on this shortly!), there are several steps between it being tossed and it being transformed into a new product. Aluminum, for example, is endlessly recyclable with strong demand all over the world. However, when it comes to plastic, companies often go for new over recycled. That’s because oil is currently cheap, and recycling costs more money to collect, transport, sort, and process into a reusable form.
Generally, if these costs are greater than what a material can be profitably sold for (this is the case with most plastics today), it is considered non-recyclable. Above all, recycling is a function of supply, so if manufacturers aren’t buying recycled materials to produce new items, there is no end-market for the material, and public recycling programs for said materials don’t exist.
As a result, public recycling is a bit of a mess. Single-stream recycling programs (where all recyclables — paper, plastic, glass, and aluminum — are collected in one bin instead of separated) cause cross-contamination, and good-intentioned residents often resort to “wish-cycling” (or, aspirational recycling) because they don’t how for sure what is accepted. Everything from car parts, bicycles, 5-gallon pails, garden hoses, working smartphones and laptops, even an actual German Enigma machine from World War II, have been extracted from recycling lines as a result of poor separation, another key ingredient to effective recycling.
Discouraged, confused, and, to no fault of their own, generally uninformed about the ins and outs of recycling, people all around the world say they recycle, and yet, Canada’s last recorded recovery rate is 27 percent , reflecting a lack of participation in existing programs.
What can I do to recycle more?
Public recycling is economically motivated, so most common items don’t belong in your blue bin. However, TerraCycle® proves that everything is technically recyclable, including candy and snack wrappers, plastic packaging, shoes, razor blades, and old and broken toys.
Even the taboo, the “yucky,” like chewing gum, dirty diapers, and cigarette butts—the most littered item in the world and one for the largest sources of ocean plastic pollution—are recycled into formats manufacturers and brands use for new production.
Recycling always comes at a cost, and public recycling is funded by taxes. The way TerraCycle works around these limitations is through partnerships with conscious companies, who create first-of-its-kind National Recycling Programs, many of which are free for consumers to use.
For example, Staples Canada is partnered with TerraCycle to offer free recycling for used writing instruments at over 300 locations across Canada — any brand of pens and pen caps, mechanical pencils, markers and marker caps, highlighters and highlighter caps, permanent markers and permanent marker caps are included!
Simply find a participating Staples retailer near you, collect your writing instruments, then drop them off for recycling. Once the store collects enough to send to TerraCycle, the recycling experts separate, clean, and turn the plastics into a format that can be used for new products, like park benches and playgrounds.
Together, we have successfully diverted over 2 million writing instruments from ending up in landfills. If all writing instruments recycled through this program were connected, they could travel up the CN tower nearly 700 times!
The world is waking up to the fact that public recycling is on the decline, so by creating access to solutions with the help of partners like us, TerraCycle aims to show the world the magic of putting more material to good use.
Here are some additional tips on recycling correctly:
● The most important aspect of recycling correctly is knowing exactly what your municipality accepts. Don’t be a “wish-cycler”! Go to your municipality’s website or call or email them to learn more.
● To find out what type of plastic a container is made of, look for the Resin Identification Code (RIC) at the bottom: a triangle made of arrows containing numbers 1 through 7. These are NOT “recycling numbers,” of which there are no such thing, and they do not equal recyclability.
● Many municipal recyclers accept #1 or #2 white or clear bottles or jars (with caps, pumps, and spouts removed), aluminum containers, and clear glass with no attachments or added plastic. Again, this varies by region, so please check with your municipality for what is accepted.
● Colored plastic and small and complex items (like writing instruments!) are generally non-recyclable.
● Nearly everything not accepted by your curbside can be recycled by TerraCycle!