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Being Green: Recycling.

January 30, 2009

Recycling is a subject with which most people are probably familiar.  We see its advocates and pieces almost constantly – recycling bins, recyclable labels on packaging, and friendly TV spots reminding us to “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!”

Unfortunately, that doesn’t give us a very good idea of what recycling is. Or, for that matter, how to do it (properly).

Recycling is a rather tricky process.  You take your material – for the sake of argument, pop bottles – into a collection station, usually referred to as a recycling center.  You drop off your bottles, they give you some money (sometimes), and you drive home, fairly sure that you’ve done something good from the environment but a bit confused and perhaps a bit discouraged as to what good you’ve actually done.

Meanwhile, at the collection station, they dig themselves into the stuff you’ve brought.  If you sorted the stuff out at home, it can go straight into processing; after being sorted by color, the bottles are crushed into blocks and sold to the processing companies.  Once these guys get ahold of your bottles (and by now, several other people’s bottles), they grind them up, sort out the bits of labels and plastic lids, and use the resultant material to make things.

But where, we may wonder, are these things they’re making?  We pump tons of recyclable materials into the centers each year, but it’s rather rare to actually see anything in a store that’s made from any post-consumer products.  With that in mind, it’s easy to wonder whether they’re actually making use of this stuff that we’re taking our precious time to deliver to them.

Rest assured, though, these materials are being used – especially if cleaned properly, as mentioned last Friday.  PET flakes – the stuff left over once the wrappers and lids are removed – are frequently used to make plastic fibres (such as found in clothing, pillows or those neat reusable shopping bags), or sometimes made into new bottles.  Other kinds of plastics are made into lumber, construction material, picnic tables or other things.  Glass and paper have their own applications.  Aluminum, possibly the most valuable recyclable resource, can simply be remade into new cans for a huge reduction in carbon output.

On the other hand, if you just throw this stuff in the trash, it is hauled away and dumped into a huge trash pile where it will spend the next few decades slowly decomposing and emitting huge quantities of toxic chemicals.  Your choice.

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