Sunday, October 11, 2020

Musing about Recycling

Recycling is on my mind because a National Public Radio (NPR) study (link) last month found that plastic recycling is basically not happening; most of the plastic goes to landfills. And always has. What? I am a believer in recycling.

recycling bin and trash bin

Studying at the University of Michigan, in 1968 I took my first ecology course. The class included "cycles," how carbon, nitrogen, water--every element and molecule--move through our world. One of the examples was aluminum, which is found in moderate amounts in the earth but was rapidly being mined to make aluminum cans and other materials. The cycle showed aluminum going increasingly to landfills. I embraced recycling then because it made sense to me that if we didn't gather used aluminum and reuse it, the aluminum would become ever harder and more expensive to produce. Post-human use simply needed to be linked into the cycles. By us, not by waiting thousands of years for natural processes to break down the cans.

Aluminum cycle without recycling. 
Aluminum moves in the direction of the arrows, 
the thickness of the arrow indicating rate of movement. 
Some cycles show amount in each place 
with the size of the circles: I guessed

Since then, recycling has spread to many materials. The principles apply broadly; if we reclaim materials from the dump, we add to the available stocks for industry.

But recycling isn't simple. Many of our products are complex, containing perhaps aluminum, plastic, iron, and things that we don't know how to recycle. They have to be collected, separated, and processed. For the most part, it is cheaper to use new materials. People and governments subsidize recycling and using recycled material is good public relations for corporations, creating some profit on something that is basically a service. The economics work better in cities, where lots of people create a concentrated waste stream. In rural areas, the cost of collection quickly exceeds any profit. Yet, if we manufacture without recycling, there will come a time when we will have to search landfills for materials for industry.

I've recycled as a matter of principle for 60 years. I somehow thought we were particularly cool in the U.S. for recycling. Certainly when I traveled in the 70s, 80s and 90s I didn't see much recycling outside the U.S., but I probably I didn't see much in the U.S. then, either. 

My traveling increased beginning about 2006. I found recycling difficult during travel. In 2006 I did not find recycling in hotels (it was common by 2019). Frequently there were no recycling bins visible in train stations or by museums when I wanted to dispose of something (in Europe there were no waste bins, either, to prevent bombs hidden there). The first pictures I have of recycle bins are from 2014. Majorca had bins for organic and inorganic waste, recyclable and non recyclable. Lisbon had plastic, metal, and glass, and elsewhere, cardboard. I began noticing recycling. 

recycling bin, Majorca, Spain
In Majorca, Spain

In the United States, recycling rules differ and knowing what to recycle and what to put in the trash is complicated. Having the instructions in a language you don't know makes it harder to choose between bins. I reflect when traveling that I''m fortunate that English is so widely used, that so many languages use our Roman letters, and that many words in recycling are cognates. 

recycling bins, Portuguese labels
In Portugal

recycling bins, in Japanese
In northern Japan

Beginning in 2015, I photographed recycling bins. I saw recycling in China, Belgium, Germany and Australia that year. Obviously it was world-wide. 

recycling bins, Australia
Alice Springs, Australia 2015

Many were ordinary trash bins, labeled for recycling 

recycling, park in Toronto, Canada
In Toronto, Canada

But some had quite sophisticated designs:

recycling bin, Toronto Canada
In Toronto, Canada

recycling bin, Stockholm, Sweden
In Stockholm, Sweden

And a few had made an effort to be aesthetic: 

recyling bin, Suzhou, China
In Suzhou, China

When I took all these photos, I believed I was seeing a sensible response to our wealth of manufactured goods and imagined the economics had been worked out. But no, the NPR article said. Oh-oh.

Reading follow-up articles, I find they say "yes" and "no." For example, in San Antonio, bottles are recycled but not other plastic, paper but not glass (link). Some plastics do recycle (link), but not, dear to a botanist, plastic pots, despite the recycle mark underneath (link). So it isn't simple. Better than in 1968, but not solved. The article that left me with hope, which I can't find again to credit, said that recycling is important for providing material to make more things--an aluminum or carbon cycle argument--and that will only increase in the future, so we can expect research to steadily overcome the technical issues.

Fifty years after that first ecology course, recycling makes even more sense. There are more of us (3.7 billion 1970, 7.8 billion 2020) and we have created and thrown away fifty years of stuff. Recycling will help sustain our wealth. I'll sort more carefully but continue to recycle rather than discard. 

aluminum cycle with recycling
Aluminum cycle with recycling

person in recycle suit
Supporting U. Michigan recycling, Sept. 2019

Comments and corrections welcome.

References not linked above
Koop, F. July 28, 2020. Why is recycling so important? The dirty truth behind our trash ZME Science
link  Accessed 10/9/2020.

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist
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  1. this is a very interesting article, I've recycled as much as I can since I was a student back in the late 80s, when there were a few recycling bins in Edinburgh. It's increased a lot since then but it's frustrating that different parts of Edinburgh even have slightly different arrangements for what can be recycled and how. It is good to know though that our city does actually do good things with what it claims to recycle, though the information is quite difficult to find. Reducing consumption is as important as recycling of course too.

  2. Fifty years ago, my last year in high school, I spoke to the City Council of our small town about the importance of recycling ... not much interest. The Coors distributor took aluminum cans then, but that was it. Now the town is a city, and they have weekly pickup. On good days I think we've come so far. But then I read how far we still have to go ... sigh.

  3. Great job done! hope we have these type of recycle been soon.

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