The Changing Face of Recycling


Many first memories of recycling are of redeeming aluminum cans, or taking the old glass returnable bottles to a grocery store. Many schools, and organizations like the Boy Scouts, participated in “paper drives”, where old newspapers were collected and taken to a paper recycler to generate funds for children’s programs.

These days aluminum cans are still redeemable, but at combined CRV centers that also take plastic and glass. An old glass returnable bottle would probably fetch more as a kitschy collectible, as opposed to recycling it. And despite being perhaps the noblest of journalistic endeavors, printed newspaper circulations have been in sharp decline for years. Of course, with change comes opportunity.

Municipalities have embraced recycling in a big way. What started out as end-user sorted bins of only a few types of waste has in many cases progressed to vast, co-mingled “single-streams” of waste that divert a significant amount of material from landfills. According to the 2016 Recycling Economic Information (REI) Report, in 2007, recycling and reuse activities in the United States accounted for 757,000 jobs, $36.6 billion in wages, and $6.7 billion in tax revenues.

This growth has not been without pains. Contamination, often by well-meaning consumers, is an ongoing concern, especially in co-mingled collection programs. Enthusiastic end-users will often throw things they think should be recyclable into their bins: metal car parts, garden hoses, extension cords, plastic grocery bags, light bulbs. These things can be recycled, but not by your average curbside collection program.

To complicate matters further, the waste stream itself has changed. The tidal wave of consumer electronics, often obsolete in a year or two, that floods recycling centers has created an entire e-waste industry. The so-called “Amazon Effect” – the sharply increased cardboard (OCC) content of municipal waste streams – caused by on-line commerce is having a serious impact in certain markets.

These challenges, along with the cyclical nature of any international material-handling industry like recycling, present both problems and opportunities. There is perhaps no more exciting time to be involved with recycling than today. Emerging technologies in the material handling equipment industry, automated sorting, new polymers, and bioplastics, will all have roles to play. We are even returning to the first steps of the manufacturing process, and beginning to engineer the eventual recycling of products into the designs themselves.

The one constant in the recycling industry has been change. Recycling has come a long way since 1987, when the garbage-loaded barge Mobro 4000 created a media frenzy as it searched in vain for a place to offload. As distant as that event seems, we are still in the early days of recycling, and there is much innovation ahead. Today’s successful recycler is a diversified operation, with the knowledge, equipment, and industry relationships to handle a wide range of commodities, in varying market conditions, well into the future.