What we know as curbside recycling in the 21st century dates back to the birth of the environmental movement in the 1970s. We have spent the better part of 50 years trying to reduce waste by putting paper, plastic, and glass to the curb in special recycling bins. To put it bluntly, we have gained very little for doing so. Curbside recycling barely makes a dent in the total amount of plastic waste we produce every year.
You could make the case that curbside recycling has been little more than a waste of time and resources. And for the record, industrial recycling looks nothing like a curbside program. Companies like Memphis-based Seraphim Plastics actually make industrial recycling work. They seem to be able to do what municipal curbside recycling programs cannot: recycle plastics and make a profit.
The good news is that a few benefits have been realized from curbside recycling. For example, curbside recycling has served as a great educational tool. The following three things we have learned from it are evidence of its ability to inform.
1. Dreams Don’t Always Come True
Those of us who grew up in the 1970s remember the grandiose promises made by recycling advocates. They used to come to our schools and put on slick presentations. They promised us a future in which the whole world would be clean and green – all because we did our part to recycle newspapers and glass bottles.
The dream they pitched was just that – a dream. But curbside recycling has taught us that dreams don’t always come true. Not even a fraction of what was promised back in the 1970s has become reality. That’s too bad because the dream seemed pretty inviting.
2. Consumerism Is the Real Problem
We like to think of plastics as one of the biggest evils of our day. Yet plastic is just a manufacturing material. It is inanimate and completely guiltless of any crime against nature. No, the real problem is consumerism. The consumer mindset convinces us to buy things, use them for a while, and throw them away.
Before the Industrial Revolution, throwing things away was rare. Items were used until they were completely unusable. Then they were broken down for scrap. The scrap was used to make new items. Very little went to waste because the consumer mentality did not exist.
We only talk of curbside recycling today because consumerism dominates our thinking. We produce so much waste because we waste so much. If we stopped behaving like consumers and started behaving like people who truly cared about reducing waste, things would change.
3. Money Always Talks
So many people cringe when an association is made between curbside recycling and money. Let’s be honest, no municipality makes money on curbside recycling. Companies like Seraphim Plastics focus their efforts on industrial recycling because there is no money in residential.
The unfortunate reality is that money always talks. Curbside recycling proves that. If money cannot be made, people are reluctant to recycle. If recycling turns out to be a money-losing proposition, no one but government will even bother.
If we truly want to find a way to make residential recycling actually work, we need to study the industrial model. What is it that makes it possible for Seraphim to earn a good living by recycling industrial plastics? Why is their process so easy and efficient compared to municipal curbside programs?
Recycling can work under the right circumstances. Most of what we attempt doesn’t work due to the inherent weaknesses of curbside recycling. Address those weaknesses and you change the outcome.