Are we clear about recycling? It is not the same thing waste separation and waste recycling

In planet threatened by resource and raw materials scarcity, we have been hearing for decades about the effective use of resources and recycling. Especially in Europe, a region with its natural resources already exhausted and with an activity depending on raw materials and resources extracted in other areas of the world. The European Union has been progressing on its path of recycling for decades and has an advantage to many other countries.

Waste recycling is a complex issue, both technically and conceptually. One of the most common confusions, sometimes deliberately used, is to consider that are we citizens who recycle waste. The protagonists of the recycling loop are the administrations, the industries and the citizens, but the image that a good part of the citizenship has about recycling is somehow diffuse, in the belief that, once us our garbage bag has been collected, the waste management is someone else’s concern.

In all chain of materials recycling citizens play a key role, but those who recycle are the recycling industries, whose operations will be successful or not according to how we citizens deliver our waste and demand their recovered materials.

A waste is a material that, for some reason, is neither in the right place nor at the right time to be used as material or as fuel. So, can waste management be solved only by reverse logistics?

Recycling a material means re-introducing it into a new cycle of use or consumption, after its previous cycle has been exhausted. So recycling begins, obviously, by means of the separation of the different waste streams. Here plays the equipment that local entities make available to citizens (the hardware) and the use that we citizens make of these containers (the software). It is the very name of these containers where the citizen confusion begins: these are not recycling containers, but differentiated waste collection containers.

A good citizen response towards recycling begins with the domestic source separation of the different waste fractions (for example, glass, paper and cardboard, packaging, organic fraction, residual fraction) of our waste. And the citizen action must continue with the ordered deposit of each waste fraction in the proper containers located in our streets. Any misuse, either deliberate or not, of these containers by a few citizens can ruin the civic effort and dedication of many others.

After the different containers are fed, it is required in the area (within a “reasonable” radius, not in another region or metropolis) the operation of a series of industries whose activities are the reception of these fractions (glass, paper and cardboard, packaging, organic), the classification and recovery and the sale as recycled material in the market.

And the last link in the recycling chain, without which all of the above will not work, is the demand, both from local industries and from citizens, for materials marketed by these “recycling” industries, which must compete in qualities and prices with the offer of “new” materials. And this is the crux of the matter: if for reasons of price, quality or lack of knowledge neither local industries nor consumers demand these second-hand materials, all the previous effort is useless and these streams of used materials, after going through costly logistic and processing operations, will end up either in an incinerator (a bad solution) or in a landfill (a worse one).

So, we need to have the big picture of the whole recycling chain in order to foster recycling in a more effective way. It is a mistake for citizens to believe that by depositing our waste in the appropriate container “we have already complied” and it is an error of the administrations to consider (and publish) that all materials entering a material recovery facilities are “recycled materials”.

The different local recycling industries need to ensure a proper input material (by means of separate collection), a good processing capacity -competitive in costs and qualities- of this material and, above all, a stable demand for their different recycled materials.

Recycling more tons of materials and obtaining higher quality recycled materials will mean better prices in the materials market, which in turn will increase demand and close the recycling loop.

And if not, if the waste material entering the recycling plants is not adequate, what comes out of them will not be demanded at all, and we will all continue cheating the guy on the glass and wasting money and efforts to paint green our local waste management system.

Our society needs to ensure that we citizens are aware and disciplined, that the recycling industries are competitive in terms of costs and quality and that we citizens close the loop by demanding and consuming these recycled materials. This is how recycling works, so complex and so simple.

This cross-cutting issue, which must be well established in practice in order to be able to speak about a circular economy, which includes awareness, logistics, technology, marketing and communication, and which, if well designed and implemented, can be an important source of green and stable jobs, will be discussed during the ISWA 2019 World Congress, which will be held at the Euskalduna Palace in Bilbao, between October 7th and 9th, 2019.



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