‘Recycle at source’ is one of the mantras of recycling. But what does it mean and does it serve a purpose? It is a little bit like unscrambling an egg – once it is broken it is almost impossible to fix.
Recycling is a volume driven business based on low margins – especially since China recently banned imported recyclables. The recycler is looking for the best quality recyclable material because this earns him the highest return. If, along the way, the recyclables are degraded by contamination, rain or dust their quality and hence their income potential are reduced. Which is where recycling at source comes in.
Recycling starts with separating general waste from recyclable material – paper, cardboard, plastic, tin, glass and others. This is fairly simple and can easily be done at source. Further down the chain the recycler may separate the recyclers further into different types of plastic and paper in order to combine materials of a single type. There is, however, an additional cost in terms of labour and transport.
From sorting through the types of recycling material to classifying the recyclables, sorting on site helps in the quality of your recycling
We all have a choice when disposing of something which we have used, be it a napkin, plastic juice bottle or piece of paper. We can choose to throw it in the general waste or to recycle it. The general waste goes to a landfill and adds to the growing mountain of refuse. The recyclable item will be sent to someone who will reuse it thereby reducing virgin material. From a moral standpoint the choice is simple, is it that easy?
If there are separate containers for general waste and recyclables the choice is easy to exercise, and you are separating at source. If there is only one container the egg may get scrambled. The major cost components in the recycling business are the cost of transport and the cost of labour, both of which are rising at above the inflation rate.
The container with the mixed load then then be taken to another place – if there is an onsite waste yard so much the better – where someone will have to empty and separate the general waste and recyclable. Once this has been done the two materials will have to be reloaded and taken to the landfill or a recycler’s premises. Both require labour and transport. Whilst this provides much needed employment it pushes up the costs of an industry with already dangerously low margins.
If there is no on site recycling the situation is worse because of double handling. The mixed load is taken to a yard unloaded sorted and then reloaded. This is inefficiency at its highest. But isn’t that your job as a recycler to sort the waste you may ask? Yes it is, but the sorter cannot prevent contamination.
By recycling on site, you minimise the risk of contaminating your recycling
Contamination is the other problem with mixing a load. Recyclers will accept a limited amount of contamination eg coffee grinds split on white paper. At a certain point however, it is not worth the expense of washing or cleaning it and that material is then rejected and sent to landfill. As a general rule mixing recyclables and general waste will always result in some form of contamination and loss of value.
If the material is contaminated the recycler will invariably downgrade it and pay a lower rate for the entire load because of his extra labour costs. The client receives less income and starts to wonder whether it is worthwhile recycling. In the worst case scenario he decides not and reverts to sending everything to landfill.
This is why it is important that we each exercise the choice and recycle at source. If there are no separate containers available then it may be possible to keep the material until later. It is not necessary to dispose of it immediately. Separate containers can also be installed at low cost, a separate bag or box will do in most environments. For those environments which need something better there are many types of containers in different colours, materials and prices available and in the plastic retailers.
In Europe, where the recycling culture has already taken hold, this choice and these practices are second nature. In South Africa we have a way to go still, but we are definitely on the journey as the growing body of evidence shows. The argument for recycling at source is simple and the logic is irrefutable. And the nicest part is it doesn’t require any external pressure to implement. It is a personal decision.
Image: Recycle Reg