We have all heard the slogan, “reduce, reuse, recycle,” but how often do we sit back and actually think about what it means? At Kitchen Works, Inc, we think about it a lot. We are a kitchen supply retailer and we love to support home cooks. Considering the kitchen is where most of the trash in a home is generated, we are committed to taking recycling very seriously. The “reduce, reuse, recycle” slogan was first used sometime in the 1970s, and the aim was to transition Americans away from their wasteful ways by reducing the one-time use products we all rely on, reusing well-made items rather than throwing them away, and recycling items that can be used again.
Recycling refers to the practice of converting waste into usable material. It is more complicated than simply reusing or repurposing an item since it often requires breaking down the item of waste and reforming it into something new. Recycling is an incredibly effective way to practice environmentalism and sustainability. If you have not participated in recycling before and are slightly intimidated by the practice, this piece will serve to get you comfortable with the practice. If you are an avid recycler, this piece will remind you of why your dedication is important. We are about to cover the basic tenets of recycling. Get ready to learn about:
Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Recycling
Recycling is not one-size-fits all. Generally speaking, there are three types of recycling: primary, secondary, and tertiary. When it comes to household recycling, most people contribute to primary recycling. Secondary and tertiary recycling is most often carried out by corporations.
Here is a review of each type of recycling:
- Primary Recycling: This is also known as closed-loop recycling. It refers to a waste item being turned into a new version of the same item. For example, aluminum cans that get recycled are almost always turned into more aluminum cans. In fact, the recycling rate for aluminum cans is 50%, one of the highest recycling rates of any food or beverage container. The history behind aluminum can recycling is actually quite fascinating. In the 1940s, most beer brands were packaging their products in tin cans, but those quickly became litter. Owner and third-generation beer-man, William Coors, not only was the first to transition to the aluminum can, but he was also the first to provide a deposit on his packaging. He traded a penny for a recycled can and wound up with more recyclable material than he knew what to do with. In 2020, you can recycle an aluminum can in your house today, and find that same material back on shelves just six weeks later.
- Secondary Recycling: This is the process of taking an item of a certain material, and using that material to make a closely related, but not identical item that is made of the same material. For example, waste plastic may be made into composite lumber. And car tires might be made into “gravel” for a children’s playground. The point here is that it is not a one-to-one process, but no chemical changes are involved.
- Tertiary Recycling: This form of recycling actually does require some sort of the materials you are using to make a new material. For example, did you know that fleece is actually made out of recycling bottles? The material from the bottles is chemically treated in order to turn it into polyester. The original product and the final product do not resemble one another at all, which is another indicator that a recycled item falls into the tertiary category.
Understanding these different categories of recycling can help to put your efforts into perspective. Once you understand that aluminum can be recycled in May could be back in stores in July, recycling seems much more worth the effort. There is a fear that the things we recycle actually end up in a landfill, but that is irrational. Just a few moments of internet searching will tell you that primary, secondary, and tertiary recycling programs are alive and well.
The next time you go to toss something in your recycling bin, consider which category of recycling it will probably wind up in. Not only is this fun to consider, but it will likely help you to avoid throwing away recyclable things in the future. Understanding how things work can instill a deeper appreciation within us. Do your part not only to internalize the current system of recycling but by spreading the word to your family and friends as well.
What is environmentalism?
It is common to hear that recycling is a good environmental practice, which is why it would be wise for you to understand just what environmentalism is. Environmentalism is the practice of prioritizing the things that happen to our world’s natural environment like our water systems, forests, deserts, and atmosphere. Environmentalists work hard to stop business and personal practices that harm the environment, do their best to undo the damage that has already been done, and prevent more damage from being inflicted on our world in the future.
Recycling is a major practice within environmentalism since it helps to prevent further damage from being done to our natural world. Fun fact, Earth Day is a direct result of the Environmentalist movement and began in the early 1970s.
What is sustainability?
You have probably heard the term “sustainability” recently, as it seems to be the new buzzword within the environmentalist movement. The UN World Commission on Environment and Development defines sustainability as follows: “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” UCLA goes further by stating that “Sustainability presumes that resources are finite, and should be used conservatively and wisely with a view to long-term priorities and consequences of the ways in which resources are used.”
With these definitions, it is easy to understand where recycling fits into this belief and this lifestyle. If we are able to meet our own needs without consuming more natural resources or polluting our environment further, we will be leaving a strong and healthy world for future generations.
Recycling is a sustainable practice since it helps us meet the needs of our modern life without forcing further production of new plastics. The need for sustainability as a concept is relatively new. As recently as a hundred years ago, people were meeting their own needs by producing their own food and recycling clothes and household items instead of relying on fast fashion and big box stores. Today, convenience has taken over and we have gotten into the habit of simply throwing away an item or product we no longer need since it is easier and cheaper to purchase a new one. This is the exact type of practice that sustainability is fighting to change. If we can adopt a slightly old-fashioned mindset, value our belongings, and make a conscious effort to produce less trash, then our environment will benefit.
The benefits of recycling
So now that you understand that protecting our environment and reducing waste is the goal, let’s review some of the concrete benefits of recycling. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the basic benefits of recycling include a reduction in the amount of waste sent to landfills, the conservation of natural resources including timber, water, and minerals, an increase in economic security since recycling promotes the use of domestic material, the prevention of pollution, the conservation of energy, support for American manufacturing, and support for the American job market. Let’s review each of those benefits in detail:
- The reduction of waste sent to landfills and incinerators. When you throw something away in a garbage can, that material is destined for either a landfill or an incinerator. Landfills are not only dirty and imposing places, but they are inherently hazardous. A lot of materials that get thrown away are toxic. As time goes on and those toxins break down, they leach into soil and groundwater and can cause health hazards for people in the surrounding areas. There is actually a name for the liquid that forms when waste breaks down in landfills; Leachate. It is highly toxic. Landfills also produce greenhouse gases such as methane. Methane is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide, and it is flammable. The larger landfills get, the larger the risk they impose. Recycling can reduce the amount of waste material hitting landfills all over the world. Recycling plastic is particularly vital since plastics can take 10 to 100 years to degrade in landfills. Think of it this way, when plastic is thrown away it will be rendered useless and will eventually degrade into dangerous leachate. If plastic is recycled, it’s useful life can be extended and nothing will be sent to a landfill.
- Conserves natural resources such as timber, water, and minerals. The modern products we rely on were made from natural resources. Plastics are made from natural materials like cellulose, coal, natural gas, salt, and crude oil, and all of the wood and paper we rely on was made from timber. If we recycle these types of materials, there will be no need to continue harvesting our natural resources in such great numbers. If a used piece of plastic can be broken down and turned into a different product, then all of the cellulose, coal, natural case, salt, and crude oil that would have gone into the production of that second product will be saved. The same goes for paper. The next time you are about to throw away a sheet of paper, think of the manpower that went into harvesting timber as a natural resource. If you recycle that piece of paper, you may slow down that harvesting production.
- Increase in economic security since recycling promotes the use of domestic material. Our modern world is entirely globalized, which means we rely on products, labor, and resources outside of the United States. While this move towards globalization makes a lot of things less expensive and more convenient, it also makes our nation more vulnerable. We have recently lived through a stark example of how vulnerable globalism makes us. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, the United States was immediately short on personal protective equipment that healthcare providers and frontline workers needed in order to treat highly infectious patients safely. We had been receiving those materials from abroad, and when supply chains were interrupted, our most vital workers were left unprotected. Let’s imagine for a moment that PPE was made of recycled materials that were harvested from American homes. Since the material needed to create new PPE already existed in our nation, there would have been no need to look for supplies externally. When global travel and trade was interrupted, we would have had no problem supplying our healthcare workers with the products they needed. This is true of nearly all industries. The more we recycle, the more we become self-reliant and the less vulnerable we are to shifts in the global marketplace.
- The prevention of pollution. Harvesting natural materials and new raw materials to create new products is no easy task. It requires large equipment that is often hazardous to the environment when running. Vehicles, construction tools, processing plants, and manufacturing all do a number on our environment. The more we recycle, the less of a need there will be for harvesting and processing natural resources. With reduced production comes a reduced strain on our environment.
- The conservation of energy. Making new products from scratch is labor-intensive and requires a lot of energy output. Think about how much gas your car needs to transport you from one place to another. Now think about how much gas would be needed to transport a shipment of lumber. Similarly, processing and refining raw materials use up quite a bit of energy. When you recycle materials, there is no need to redo the initial processing and refining stage. You begin on a second base and less energy is required to create a new product out of the existing recycled material.
- Support for American manufacturing. Go find a small plastic item in your home. Maybe it is a drinking glass, a toothbrush holder, or a phone case. Where was that item made? We are willing to bet that it was not made in the United States. Very few manufacturing is kept within our borders since it is cheaper and faster to outsource manufacturing to nations with lower standards of living. The outsource of manufacturing has left many people struggling to find work. Where there were once manufacturing jobs all over our nation, today they can mostly be found in distant nations. However, if we make it a point to recycle the material that was made elsewhere, the processing of that recycled material is more likely to stay within the United States. In this way, recycling supports American manufacturing, which is good for the economy, the job market, and more.
- Support for the American job market. Like we mentioned above, when manufacturing is kept within our borders, it is good for the American job market since manufacturing plants require a lot of labor. Even outside of manufacturing, recycling creates a lot of jobs that would otherwise not exist. The practice of recycling is the practice of supporting the American job market.
Recycling is a relatively simple way to contribute to all of these wonderful things, and more. In the next section, we are going to review simple ways to start recycling today.
How to recycle?
Recycling is a responsibility. In order to ensure that the items you are attempting to recycle actually get recycled, there are a few steps you need to take. These items are not challenging, so do not be intimidated!
- Get a personal recycling bin. Most cities and towns provide recycling bins free of charge in order to promote the practice. Reach out to your local public works department to discover what recycling resources and processes are available in your area. This is as simple as googling “how to recycle in [insert town or zip code]”.
- Know what is recyclable and what is not. Generally speaking, some items are always recyclable. These include rigid plastics like soda bottles, milk jugs, and detergent bottles. Paper is almost always recyclable. Think brown paper bags, cardboard boxes, and printer paper. Glass and aluminum are also usually on the recycling list. Beyond that, you will have to do research in your local area. Some curbside recycling programs collect things like lightbulbs. Others do not. Again, this is a simple google search.
- Do not recycle something that you are not certain is recyclable. This is referred to as “wish-cycling”, and it is actually a detrimental practice. If something that cannot be recycled winds up in your bin, you run the risk of having the contents of that entire bin winding up in a landfill. The problem is that recycling agents do not have time to sort through everything you offer them. If they spot something that does not belong, they might throw the entire bin into the trash. This is a shocking thing for most hopeful recyclers to learn. When people wish-cycle, their intentions are good. They are trying to reduce their waste as much as possible. It is important to understand that in your attempt to reduce waste as much as possible, you may actually be creating more waste. Doing research on what is recyclable in your area is absolutely key. Make the 30 minute time investment once, and never run the risk of turning recyclables into trash ever again.
- Rinse and clean every item that goes into your recycling bin. If food items are left in your recyclable materials, they can grow bacteria and again, ruin the entire batch of recyclable materials. Take care to rinse out your plastics, glass, and metals well before dropping them into a recycling bin.
- Look for recycling bins in public. A lot of public places now offer public recycling bins alongside trash cans. If you look a little bit, you can find a way to recycle food and beverage containers when you are away from home. If you cannot find a recycling bin, consider carrying your recyclable material home with you and recycling it there.
- Do not compress bottles and put the lid back on. This is a common practice that actually does more harm than good. Most people argue that bottle compression
- makes sense in terms of saving space in their bin, but it is not effective when it comes to actually processing your recyclable materials. When you compress a plastic bottle, you are putting the air inside under pressure. When you recap that bottle, you are trapping that compressed air. When recyclables are processed, you run the risk of that compressed bottle becoming a projectile! Not to mention, plastic bottles and plastic lids are made of two different types of plastic, and will therefore have to be separated in order to be recycled effectively.
- Correct others when you notice recycling mistakes. It may feel uncomfortable to correct someone on their recycling form, but education in this area is important. After all, we are attempting to save our environment and conserve our resources. There is a high cost when people do not recycle effectively. Also, if you politely correct someone who is attempting to recycle, they will likely be grateful since they have already demonstrated that they care about recycling.
It is important to occasionally step back and remember why we do things like recycling. To many, it has simply become a chore that either seems too daunting to start. For others, recycling is a chore so regular that it has ceased to be interesting, but neither of those perceptions reflect the exciting reality of recycling. Recycling is not difficult, and it is also a fascinating process that has measurable impacts on our world. We encourage everyone to dedicate themselves to recycling effectively and often. It is a low barrier way to join a global community of people attempting to improve the health of our planet. The more we recycle, the healthier our environment, atmosphere, economy, and job market will become. There is no downside!