Mention recycling the next time you are gathered with friends or family and listen to how it’s described. I’d expect that the most common response would be that it’s to “put plastic, cans, and newspaper into the recycling bin.” Yes, that is the first step but hardly covers what recycling actually is. Recycling can also be re-using or repurposing things when they seem to have reached the end of their useful life, such as turning scrap or aged wood into a picture frame or making a planter from a coffee can. Recycling can also be used to describe speaking or writing, often popular with salespeople or politicians who take the same “pitch” or speech and shuffle the order or things or re-order the paragraphs but have basically the same result. Going back to the first definition, which is the common understanding of recycling, is really where the focus should be as it presents the most beneficial results for both society and the environment.
It's All Recyclable
Items such as aluminum, plastic, paper and paper-based products, other metals, and even old electronics and batteries can be passed through a process which with a little treatment makes them useful again. The process we speak about varies by commodity group, but collectively results in less waste going into landfills, and a lower impact on the planet. You don’t have to be a hard-core environmentalist to see the value of recycling as it pretty much speaks for itself.
The Story Behind Recycling in Brief
Recycling as a whole seems to go through periods of higher and then lower interest worldwide depending on circumstances and overall availabilty of resources. The earliest known compulsory recycling program took place in Japan in the year 1031 and centered on waste paper being re-pulped into newspaper. Recycling paper in America started in 1690 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In the colonies, other items were periodically recycled, although not in an official program. The first real large scale push came during the Revolutionary War, when resources were very scarce. Lead plates and bowls were melted down to make ammunition, iron pots were melted down to make cannon, and old fabric became bandages. What we call re-purposing today, has been around for a very long time. Individuals would scavenge abandoned things like glass bottles and other scraps that could be re-used in their existing state or sold to a mill for a small sum.
This peddler-trade and the perceived value of re-purposing had an unexpected benefit, that being The Salvation Army, which was founded in London, England, in 1865 and begins collecting, sorting, and recycling unwanted goods employing the unskilled poor to recover discarded materials. The Salvation Army and its resource recovery activities would later migrate to the United States in the 1890’s. As time progressed, the world saw aluminum, steel , and other metals rise in importance for recycling, especially in the periods of world war.
By the Numbers
Currently recycling is a regular practice in many communities across the nation, where regular pick-ups of cans, newspapers, plastic, and glass are reinserted into the consumer packaged goods industries. There are almost 10,000 recycling centers across the country. Aluminum cans are recycled at almost 65%, and paper at 67%. According to the EPA Americans have an overall 34.3% recycling rate - we recycled and composted 1.51 pounds of our individual waste generation of 4.40 pounds per person per day.
Technology Lends a Hand
Technology is playing a more important role in some of the recycling efforts being employed today, both for repurposing and processing materials, but also to help identify new uses for recycled products. For example, a company is retrieving plastic waste and old fishing nets from the ocean and turning them into a high performance thread which is currently being tested by shoe giant Adidas to make running shoes. Empty shipping containers are being repurposed as living spaces of all sizes. A process that takes used diapers, a huge part of many landfills, and using a process called pyrolysis creates diesel fuel with no harmful emissions. The closed system has been lauded as a legitimate way to produce fuel that is in-line economically with conventional methods. The clothing and fashion world has introduced product lines made entirely from leftovers including patchwork leather handbags, backpacks made from shredded and formed plastic, and even home furnishings.
These products and many more are part of the future of the world as recycling continues to grow and develop as an industry. Everything from the carpeting in your house, to the plastic cookware you serve your meals with, to the tires on your car, and the can filled with soda pop is tied with recycling to some degree. The next time you are walking on your laminate deck, watching the plastic case save your iPhone from damage after a fall, or even wearing the newest skinny jeans made from recycled plastic fibers, think about how you can participate in the effort. It’s easy, saves energy and water consumption, and becomes part of some very high quality and long lasting products.