What Is Recyclable?

Wait, aren’t all products with the recycling chasing arrows symbol recyclable? Unfortunately this isn’t always the case. First, there is currently no universal definition for recyclable. Second, individual materials in a product may be recyclable, but they may be fused together in such a way that it’s difficult to separate them into individual recyclable materials. Plastic-coated coffee cups, electronics, and padded envelopes are good examples of this. Third, even though a product may technically be recyclable, there must be a market for that material. In other words, a product’s recyclability has as much to do with the economy as the technology of recycling. Let’s break down the recycling economy for insight. 

Collection

The first step in the recycling process is to collect the material. Californians can sort their recyclables into a curbside recycling bin, or they may opt to take some materials to a recycling center. Dirty or broken material may not be eligible to be processed into feedstock, so be sure to add only clean items to your recycling bin. And check with your local hauler to see what materials they are collecting to recycle before putting items in your curbside recycling bin. 

Sorting and Processing into Feedstock for Manufacturers

Next, a recycling center sells the material to a recycling processor who transforms the material into feedstock for a new product. In the case of plastic water bottles, the plastic is shredded into plastic flakes. 

California has historically relied on a “collect, sort, export” model of recycling. Fluctuations in the global commodities market often impact California’s ability to export these materials for recycling. Despite these fluctuations, California exported more recyclables last year than in previous years. Even so, it’s pretty clear that California must continue investing in a robust domestic recycling infrastructure so we are not so reliant on foreign markets to process recyclables and remanufacture products.

Recycling Feedstock into New Products

Recycling processors then sell feedstock to manufacturers who use the material to manufacture new products. These products are called “recycled-content products.” It is difficult for recycled feedstock to compete in the marketplace if the price of virgin materials is cheaper. Although low oil prices mean low gas prices, they also mean it’s cheaper to make a plastic bottle from virgin materials than recycled plastic water bottle flakes. 

CalRecycle is about to start developing regulations for SB 1335 (Allen, Chapter 610, Statutes of 2018), which requires food service facilities located in state-owned buildings to use reusable, recyclable, or compostable food service packaging. Laws like SB 1335 will not only help define what is actually recyclable, but will also create a market demand for reusable, recyclable, and compostable products.

Marketing and Selling Recycled Content Products

In the final step of the recycling economy, manufacturers sell recycled-content products to distributors and retailers who then sell these products to the public. One of the ways CalRecycle helps this effort is by overseeing the state’s Buy-Recycled Campaign, which requires all state agencies to purchased recycled-content products. In addition to creating a market demand for recycled-content products, the program also creates new jobs; reduces waste, pollution, and energy consumption; and diverts waste from landfills.

Ways to Support the Recycling Economy

  • All Californians can support the recycling economy in a few simple ways. 
  • Consider ways to reduce the amount of trash you throw away every week. Can you make changes in how you shop or consume goods that would reduce your personal waste? That may look like using a reusable coffee cup or opting for products with less packaging.
  • Check with your waste hauler to learn about what recyclable materials are allowed in your recycling bin.  Haulers will let you know what they are collecting that can be sold to recycling processors.
  • Add clean recyclables to your curbside bin to reduce contamination. Rinsing out spaghetti sauce and peanut butter jars before adding them to the recycling bin can go a long way in reducing contamination.
  • Buy recycled-content products. Look for products that use recycled-content in them. CalRecycle’s website has a search tool to look for recycled-content manufacturers. 


 
— Christina Files
Posted on Oct 10, 2019

Summary: Wait, aren’t all products with the recycling chasing arrows symbol recyclable? Unfortunately this isn’t always the case. First, there is currently no universal definition for recyclable. Second, individual materials in a product may be recyclable, but they may be fused together in such a way that it’s difficult to separate them into individual recyclable materials.