Is recycling worth it?

by Michael Smith

The idea of finding value in what people are willing to pay to get rid of is one the fundamental backbones of eco-capitalism. (Tom Szaky, TerraCycle)

In the recycling model plastic has a positive value because it can be sold as a commodity and future traded, probably, even. But in order to do that one has to destroy the shape and reduce the plastic to a form that is useful for something new. The shape has, in a sense, negative value. All the recycling of that kind takes time and energy, which is the reason why people argue back and forth whether it is really an environmental plus to recycle plastic bottles (and other plastic containers). Not only is energy expended in transforming a soda bottle into a usable material, there is also the cost of the trucks and the diesel fuel they burn and so forth.

The above is basically a paraphrase of what Tom Szaky said in his book “REVOLUTION IN A BOTTLE: How TerraCycle Is Redefining Green Business” and he is ever so right in this.

The same could be said, to nearly the same extent about glass recycling, though the savings as to the costs from making new from raw is a little better than as regards with plastic bottles. For glass, whether bottles or jar, it is best to reuse, as used to be done with bottles up till about the 1970s.

So, hence, the question as to whether recycling is worth is.

We must look at waste not as waste, as something to be gotten rid of, nor as a commodity to be traded, but as a resource for eco-capitalist businesses.

We must get away from the just “recycle” attitude of, say, basically, breaking glass bottles and jars and turning them into new and from the attitude of seeing waste as recyclables and a commodity.

We must change our approach and think “upcycle” instead of recycle – on a commercial scale. This does not just apply to plastic, glass, etc. but also to, say, pallets, and computers.

The latter, that is computers, as long as they still work, and are at least 386 processors, can easily be “upcycled” by installing Open Source operating system on them, though often a memory upgrade may be required) and other Open Source software, such as Open Office and such like.

The problem with our, though not mine, understanding of recycling appears to be, collect it, get it to the recycling centers and then sell it to the brokers who in turn sell it on to be reprocessed. This, in my opinion, is the wrong approach and it would seem that TerraCycle appear to be one of the very few that actually get it.

A complete rethinking is required as to how we perceive waste and waste objects.

If and when plastic bottles and other items have lost shape and are “broken”, same as with glass bottles and glass containers, ans also pallets, then recycling into new, or use as firewood, as in case of the broken unusable pallets, by all means. But, until such a time, our thoughts should be about upcycling and re-purpose, whether at home, in the office, or on a commercial scale.

As I have said on a number of occasions before, a new mindset is required as far as recycling and waste management is concerned. Then, and only then, will things begin to work.

Currently, in the present economic climate no one, so it would seem, wants the plastic waste (and the polymers from recycling it) and hence millions of tons of the stuff sit in warehouses, in the UK alone, while the rest of it is being diverted, once again, into landfills.

As far as glass is concerned, for instance, that is to say bottles and jars and such, they should both, not just bottles, be returnable, as bottles once were, on a deposit or even just returnable for which the returnee then gets paid a few cents per bottle, for direct reuse.

Bottles and jars do not need to be broken up and remelted into new glass; at least not until they are actually broken.
Only then the glass is chipped, cracked or broker should it go for recycling into new bottles and jars or other products such as glass bricks, counter tops, etc., but not before.

Plastic containers, obviously, whether this be bottles, yogurt pots. Etc. is a different kettle of fish as, in general, so I understand, it is not possible to properly sterilize such items for direct reuse for use by humans. As far as PET sports bottles are concerned, the likes in which bottled water comes, they should not even be reused by the initial user for use with water as the material contains Bisphenol A, a known hormone disrupter, in the same way as the hard polycarbonate bottles that have been banned in places such as Canada and others for the fact of them containing BPA.

However, as TerraCycle have shown, such plastic bottles and containers can, nevertheless, still be upcycled into other uses.

The same is true for many other things; the upcycling issue, I mean.

Why, for example, do we thrown, in the UK alone, in the region of 10 million metric tons of building lumber into landfills?

I am talking here of mostly perfectly good lumber that, by just taking out some nails and screws could be used for whatever. But, the building industry says, it is not worth their time and effort to remove those nails and screws and it is cheaper to buy new. However, it is also very difficult to get the wood from those sites as they do not want to pass it on to people who would like to make use of it. Health and safety concern that people might hurt themselves on the nails or screws in the wood and could then decide to sue the contractors where they got the old lumber from.

Now, in the UK, the talk is to – hopefully – diverting this “waste” lumber to being burned in power generating plants. While this is, obviously, by far a better option than to send it to landfills it is not necessary to go down the burning route even.

Most of this “waste” lumber is perfectly fine to be used for various wood uses other than burning it as firewood or as a energy source for power generation. Burning such lumber, in the same way as breaking up bottles and jars for remelting into new, should only be the very last and final option.

Some so-called “waste” should not be waste at all and nor be seen as such, such as perfectly good glass bottles, jars, etc., wood, and other such like, while in general we need to look at waste from a different angle, namely that of being a resource for upcycling and for eco-capitalism rather than as something that needs to be managed and to be disposed of in way way or another.

Businesses are already out there that do just that, namely upcycling items of “waste”, whether this be TerraCycle with worm poop, and their other various projects, or Firewear, who upcycle fire hoses, Trashe Bolsas in the Philippines that make shopping totes and other bags from used and discarded advertising tarpaulins; and this is but a small list.

The sky, is basically, the limit here as far as upcycling goes and the kinds of products and projects are only limited by our imagination.

Upcycling of this kind can be done at home, as a hobby and/or a salable craft, as a small business from home, a larger business and bigger still, and the items that can be upcycled is more or less endless. The limit is just the ideas that we may or may not come up with as to ho to reuse such items of waste.

One important thing that has to be considered though when it comes to upcycling business, whether small or large, is that the prices have to be competitive compared to those of non-green products, and this is especially so in the current economic climate and the possible depression that we are headed for. To charge in the region of seventy US dollars for a bit of old rope with some shapes made from waste wood and color washed, strung onto the rope, and then sold as a “Beltlace” is ripping people off, and this is but one example of many that are out there in the world.

While people want to buy green and ethical they do not want to pay – in general – a huge premium for that, and why should they have to. After all the raw material used has cost nothing.

Some food for thought, methinks...

© M Smith (Veshengro), 2009