Recycling used to be simple. It was a transaction between someone who had a waste and someone who wanted that waste to manufacture a new product. Maybe there was a collector in between, but it was generally a pretty simple transaction.
As recycling has grown and evolved it has gotten a lot more complicated. There are a lot more middlemen (or middlewomen) involved in that transaction. Instead of waste generators sorting and readying their recyclables into a form that mills would buy, new facilities came along to sort and process recyclables for them. But with that, comes new confusion and concepts that should be understood.
The biggest difference to watch is the difference between treatment and recovery. Treatments are processes applied to a material or combination of materials. Recovery is the type, quality and quantity of commodities that are recovered from applying that process. That is an important distinction. The relationship between the two is not linear. Heck, applying a treatment to a greater quantity of materials does not even necessarily mean more recovery of commodities.
The laws of thermodynamics tell us that no process is 100% efficient. No sustainable materials management process recovers 100% of the materials it is applied to. Every process has some waste or residue. And some processes have far more residue than others.
The purer the product that you start with, generally the higher the recovery rate. A water bottle, kept segregated from other materials with the label and lid removed has a very high recovery potential. But it is a pain for the waste generator to prepare their material that way. So, to make things more convenient (and hopefully to get more people to participate), many programs accept those bottles with labels and even caps still attached. But doing so can significantly reduce the recovery rate of the collected materials. If you start with one of those new plastic bottles that is almost as thin as a plastic bag, the label and cap can weigh almost as much as the bottle. So if your treatment involves collecting the bottles with the lids and labels attached, your true recovery rate can drop significantly, maybe to as little as 50% of the tonnage of what you collected. More material collected may not mean more material recovered. Take that a step further. Maybe that collection process is still too inconvenient for the waste generator. So to further increase participation, maybe you collect that bottle commingled with other materials from which it must be later be separated to be recycled. You can apply a MRF treatment to that mix of materials. 100% of those bottles will have the MRF recycling treatment applied to them. But the sorting process won’t be 100% efficient. Let’s say that process only separates 85-90% of those bottles. And because they still have the lids and labels attached, another process liberates the plastic bottle from the lid and label – and that process only results in 50% of the material being recovered. So even if that mixed-material MRF process collects and is applied to twice as much material, it might still result in less material being recovered than the original “inconvenient” system in which waste generators have to segregate everything themselves.
There is some remarkable equipment and technology that has been developed over the years. It can apply a “recycling” or “diversion” treatment to more tons and make participation in that system more convenient. But some of that technology comes at a fairly significant cost. To determine the impact of that investment, you have to look not just at how many tons it will treat but how many tons it will recover. Is your investment getting the recovery you anticipated? When people think that recycling isn’t working, is it an issue with recycling or is it that your treatment isn’t yielding the recovery rate they were lead to believe? Will they turn on your program when they realize that?