How Our Recycling Systems Work

Paper cardboard recycling
Photo by Bas Emmen on Unsplash

“We get out of recycling systems what we put into them.” -Beth Porter1

Recycling is not the answer to all of our waste problems. Simply put, we’ve produced more plastic at this point than we could ever recycle away.

However, recycling can still be a part of the solution to protect ourselves and the planet, because we have to try. Ultimately we are responsible for the items and packaging from items we consume. Recycling, though far from a perfect solution, reduces the number of trees cut down for paper and the number of natural resources we harvest. Additionally, it curbs the production of new plastics and thus the fossil fuels we extract.

Green and white recycling truck on street, using a the lift to dump a residential recycling bin on a street.
Photo by the Brisbane City Council on Flickr, Creative Commons license(CC BY 2.0)

Single-Stream Recycling

“Ultimately, for recycling to become a way of life for consumers and end-users, recycling had to be easy, and it had to save money.”-Ryan Deer, Roadrunner Recycling, Inc.2

Single-stream simply means mixed materials in one group – one stream of materials. If your recycling goes in one bin and is picked up curbside, then you have single-stream recycling in your area.

The idea for single-stream came about in the 1990s because of two beliefs. First, that the convenience of putting everything in one bin would encourage more residents to participate in recycling. Using EPA statistics, one recycling company noted that single-stream recycling “overhauled the underperforming process, taking our national recycling rate from 10.1% in 1985 to 25.7% in 1995 to nearly 32% in 2005.”3

“Curbside recycling grew by 250 percent from 1988 to 1991…People were making the decision to incorporate sorting recyclable goods into their daily routine, reminiscent of war-era conservation efforts.” -Beth Porter4

The second belief is that single-stream recycling systems reduce collection costs. A single truck can collect more volume with mixed materials which reduces transportation costs. However, while collections costs are lower, the processing costs are much higher because of the sorting and separation, tasks which are performed by a combination of humans and expensive sorting machinery.

About 80% of U.S. communities use a single-stream recycling system. “Unfortunately, few could have predicted how low the ceilings really were, or how one move in global policy could send it all crashing down,” referring to China’s 2018 ban on many types of recycling imports.5 Single-stream is clearly riddled with problems and we must find a better way to handle recycling.

“More than 20 million tons of curbside recyclable materials are disposed [of] annually. Curbside recycling in the U.S. currently recovers only 32% of available recyclables in single-family homes, leaving enormous and immediate  opportunity for growth to support the economy, address climate change, and keep recyclable commodities out of landfills.”6

A bird's eye view of the interior of a Material Recovery Facility (MRF).
A bird’s eye view of the interior of a Material Recovery Facility (MRF). Photo by Urban Greendom on Flickr, Creative Commons license, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Material Recovery Facility (MRF)

Recycling collected through single-stream is taken to a Material Recovery Facility, or MRF (pronounced”murf”), and sorted by type of material for them to sell. That is the entire purpose of a MRF: the recycling trucks deposit the collected materials, and the MRF sorts, separates, removes waste from, and bales the recycling together. MRFs are businesses seeking profit; they are not municipally owned and operated.

The physical processing at MRFs varies. But a series of expensive, interconnected machines largely sorts the materials. We produce so much waste that there is no other way to separate it. In 2018, the U.S. produced 292.4 million tons of waste, and we recycled approximately 69 million tons.7 That’s not enough.

Generally, at the MRF, trucks dump the mixed materials onto a large floor, called the tipping floor. A front-end loader drops it into a large bin, called a drum feeder, at the start of the processing line. The materials move through a series of conveyor belts with fans, magnets, and wheels to separate the types of items. Humans remove debris and non-recyclable items at various points to prevent tangling or damage to the machinery. Small items, such as caps and utensils, are not likely to make it through these systems because of their size. In addition, they are difficult to bale because they do not have much surface area. For a video of how MRFs work, see Additional Resources below.

At the end of this process, the MRF bales the recyclables to sell to recyclers and manufacturers. The markets change constantly so one of the biggest challenges is recouping money from the materials. Remember, the MRF is looking to profit just like any other business. Recycling does not happen unless it is profitable.

Worker looking at bales of recycling at a recycling center.
Photo by Vivianne Lemay on Unsplash

Increased Contamination

Contamination is simply the mixing of recyclables with dirty items and non-recyclables. The average resident may not want to spend time cleaning their recyclables, or they may not know it is necessary. They may not understand what is and is not accepted in their local recycling. They may also be “wish-cycling,” which is when someone attempts to recycle something they think should be recycled, like a plastic bag, but which is not recyclable. That plastic bag can get tangled in the machinery at the MRF, and it contaminates the end product of recyclables the MRF needs to sell. If the recyclables have too many contaminates, or non-recyclable items, those bales are likely to be landfilled or incinerated rather than sold to a company that will reuse them.

“When consumers put non-recyclable items into their recycling bins, those materials take a long and circuitous (and expensive) route to the landfill.” -Jennie Romer8

Contamination rates more than doubled between 2007 and 2013.9 “Because of how the system works, the ‘magic bin’ is actually a disgusting, contaminated soup pot. Shaken, stirred, and dumped into a compactor truck with your neighbors’ random mix, contamination keeps 25% of what we put in our recycling bin from ever being processed at a MRF,” wrote Ryan Deer.10 Reducing contamination is key, but it is difficult within a single-stream recycling system.

“For nearly 30 years, Americans have been honeymooning with a recycling system that seems too good to be true.” -Ryan Deer, Roadrunner Recycling, Inc.11

Paper recycling bale, contaminated with a blue plastic Finesse shampoo bottle.
Paper recycling bale, contaminated with a plastic shampoo bottle. Photo by Vivianne Lemay on Unsplash

Dual-Stream Recycling

In a dual-stream system, each material type is kept in a separate bag or bin, and trucks have three or more compartments. The materials are already sorted upon arrival at the MRF. This was the common recycling collection system until single-stream became the dominant system by the mid-1990s. It costs more and requires trucks with separate sections. But the higher costs “of having residents sort could very well be offset by the higher-quality materials they’re recovering and able to sell.” Single-stream loses about 25% of collected materials from contaminants versus less than 12% in dual-stream.1213

Essentially, most recycling centers serve as a dual-stream system because residents separate the recycling into different dumpsters, which the recycling company collects directly. This results in lower contamination and higher recovery rates, meaning less of that recycling is landfilled.

“There is significant evidence that the resulting scrap material quality (and hence the revenue) is lower under single-stream collection than it is under a dual stream system or under systems like container deposits, where materials are kept separate.” -The Container Recycling Institute14

Collected PET plastic bottles crushed.
Photo by tanvi sharma on Unsplash

System-Wide Problems

Although consumers need to do their part, the problems with recycling in the U.S. do not fall solely on the public. In fact, the systems in place are themselves faulty. Packaging and single-use disposable production are out of control, and the market demand is low. The market needs improvement, as the cost for new materials is sometimes lower than recycled materials. Additionally, only between 50-74% of Americans have access to curbside recycling. There are multiple problems. But that doesn’t mean it can’t change. As The Recycling Partnership noted:

“The ultimate fate of recyclable materials rests in the hands of a broad set of stakeholders who must all do something new and different to support a transition to a circular economy. Strong, coordinated action is needed in areas ranging from package design, capital investments, scaled adoption of best management practices, policy interventions, and consumer engagement.15

How To Recycle Better

While recycling systems must be improved and we must find or create demand for recycled materials, we can help improve our own practices. Remember, that just because a product is made with recycled materials, does not necessarily mean it is recyclable. “A 2016 survey showed that 59 percent of the public thinks that ‘most types of items’ are recyclable in their town, perhaps without knowing the local rules,” wrote Beth Porter.16 You can find a list of what is acceptable in your area by going to your municipal website.

Here’s how you can help improve single-stream and dual-stream recycling to keep from contaminating the recycling:

      • Don’t put in plastic bags or films. (Note: Supermarkets often collect bags.)
      • Do not bag your recyclables.
      • Empty and rinse the containers. Food contamination, especially as it rots, reduces the value of the recyclables.
      • Don’t crush plastic recyclables. This is so that the MRF can read the resin codes (plastic #) on the bottom of the containers.
      • Separate the caps and only recycle them if they have a proper resin code that is accepted in your area. Most of the time, you will be throwing these away.
      • Do not recycle candy wrappers, paper cups, receipts, plastic straws and utensils, polystyrene or Styrofoam, shredded paper, complex cartons (milk cartons, broth, soup, etc.), large plastic items (chairs, laundry baskets, etc), electronics, or batteries.
      • Certain types of glass cannot be recycled: window, mirror, crystal, or Pyrex.
      • Do not put in take-out containers, especially foam ones, unless they are plastic #1 or #2 and are clean.
      • Pizza boxes depend on your area, but most of the time the grease on the cardboard contaminates recycling. You can tear off the bottom and recycle the top if it is free of grease and food.
      • Remove shrinkwraps from #1 and #2 bottles.
      • Frozen food boxes are usually not recyclable because they contain a layer of plastic coating (to protect the package from moisture).
      • Flatten cardboard boxes.
      • Other items that you should put in the garbage, and not the recycling, include applesauce/juice packets, milk or broth cartons (or any multi-layer packaging), and paper napkins/towels.

Some of the items listed above are accepted through separate recycling streams. Elizabeth Royte wrote, “A common motto is ‘When in doubt, throw it out,’ but I prefer the alternative ‘When in doubt, go find out’ to build better habits rather than giving up on confusing items.”17 Do your best and teach others how to recycle better as well.

The bottom line is, if we purchase something, we need to take responsibility for disposing of it. If we stop buying so many products in single-use disposable containers, especially plastics, the companies and manufacturers will stop producing them as demand goes down. At the same time, companies must take real initiative and stop producing waste that is not recyclable.

Graphic of a tree with the leaves in the shape of a recycling symbol. Blue sky background.
Image by 政徳 吉田 from Pixabay

Going Forward

“If all of the 37.4 million tons of single-family recyclables were put back to productive use instead of lost to disposal, it would reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 96 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, conserve an annual energy equivalent of 154 million barrels of oil, and achieve the  equivalent of taking more than 20 million cars off U.S. highways.”18

We have the opportunity to make a real difference by better handling our waste. While recycling is not the answer to our waste problems, it is still very important. We need a coordinated effort to reduce waste, to increase demand and markets for recycling, and to be better stewards of the waste we do create. The Recycling Partnership lists these strategies in order to overhaul and improve our recycling systems:

    • “Substantially greater support of community recycling programs with capital funding, technical assistance, and efforts to strengthen and grow local political commitment to recycling services.
    • Development of new and enhanced state and federal recycling policies.
    • Continued and expanded investment in domestic material processing and end markets.
    • Citizen and consumer engagement to create and sustain robust and appropriate recycling behavior.
    • Continued innovation in the collection, sorting and general recyclability of materials, including the building of flexibility and resiliency to add new materials into the system.
    • Broader stakeholder engagement in achieving all elements of true circularity, in which the fate of all materials is not just intended to be recycled, but that they are designed, collected, and actually turned into something new.”19

In the end, we need to focus on reducing waste, including “recyclables,” in order to turn the tide of excessive waste. We must stop wishing for easy and convenient solutions and instead take responsibility for our waste.

Will we do it? What are your ideas? Feel free to leave me a comment below. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Video, “How Recycling Works,” SciShow, June 11, 2015. I love how succinctly this video breaks down how recycling works at the MRF. You’ll learn a lot in just 8 minutes!

Article, “What is a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF)?,” by Shelby Bell,

Video, “Single Stream Recycling – Tour a Material Recovery Facility (MRF),” Van Dyk Recycling Solutions, October 13, 2016.

Video, “Ever Wonder Where Your Recyclables Go? Get an Inside Look at Where the Magic Happens,” about the Sims Municipal Recycling facility in New York City, featured by Mashable Deals on youtube, May 29, 2018.

Article, “These Items Don’t Belong in Your Recycling,” by Ryan Deer,

Article, “The Violent Afterlife of a Recycled Plastic Bottle: What happens after you toss it into the bin?” by Debra Winter, The Atlantic, December 4, 2015.

Article, “Recycling in the U.S. Is Broken. How Do We Fix It?” by Renee Cho, Columbia Climate School, March 13, 2020.

Footnotes:

The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 9

Last updated on April 10, 2021.

Online shopping exchange, hands coming out of computer screens
Image by Mediamodifier from Pixabay

In my last article, I wrote about giant retailer Walmart and its role in the packaging industry. Today I explore the packaging impact of the largest online retailer, Amazon. They have a number of sustainability initiatives and appear to be very transparent on their website in their efforts toward sustainability. But is it enough?

“Reducing packaging waste, one package at a time at Amazon, we obsess over providing a great packaging experience to our customers.”

Person shopping Amazon from their smartphone
Image by Hannes Edinger from Pixabay

Packaging for online shopping is different

Packaging at the retail store level is designed to stand out on the shelf to entice consumers to buy it. Sometimes packaging is oversized to prevent theft. With online shopping, these are not issues since the consumer is seeking the products directly. “This allows brands to rethink the optimum packaging for the use of the product, freeing designs from shelf height or having to maintain a visual size comparison with competitive products,” wrote Lisa McTigue Pierce in The Future of Packaging.

“The primary challenge we see is that packaging designed for brick-and-mortar retail is in many cases not optimal for online fulfillment. Packaging designed to stand out on a retail shelf is often oversized, with expensive “romance” design aesthetics, redundant features to prevent theft and not capable of surviving the journey to the customer.” -Brent Nelson, Amazon

Frustration-Free Packaging Program

Like Walmart, retail companies work with Amazon to optimize and reduce packaging. Amazon’s Frustration-Free Packaging Program (FFP) began in 2008. This program offers more sustainable packaging that is right-sized, reduces damage during shipping, is made of 100% curbside recyclable materials, does not contain plastic clamshells or wire ties, and is easier to open. Amazon collaborates with manufacturers to help them innovate and improve their packaging, reducing frustration, and cutting waste and costs. “Since 2015, we have reduced the weight of outbound packaging by 33% and eliminated more than 880,000 tons of packaging material, the equivalent of 1.5 billion shipping boxes,” Amazon states. The following are examples of companies working with Amazon to achieve these objectives.

Philips Norelco One Blade Shaver

One Amazon Frustration-Free Packaging case study was the Philips Norelco One Blade shaver project. The plastic clamshell used to both advertise from the store shelf and prevent theft wasn’t necessary for direct purchasing and shipping. Philips reduced the number of packaging components from 13 to 9 and reduced the packaging volume by 80%.

Norelco Frustrayion Free packaging diagramNorelco Frustrayion Free packaging diagram

Philips Hue Smart Lighting

Again, Philips worked directly with Amazon to greatly reduce its packaging waste and volume for this product.  Even though the same amount of packaging components were used, the packaging volume and air were vastly reduced and the frustration-free version is mostly recyclable cardboard instead of plastic.

Diagram showing Amazon standard packaging vs. Frustration free packaging

Fisher-Price Toys

The packaging for toys is often designed to draw the consumer’s attention on the shelf, but this isn’t necessary for online retail settings. So Fisher-Price was able to reduce its packaging components from 19 to just 1, reduce packaging volume by 88%, and reduced the amount of air shipped by 99%!

Fisher-Price toys Frustration Free packaging diagram

Hasbro

Hasbro also works with Amazon on packaging design:

Frustration-Free Packaging Program Certification

Today, this program requires certification. In 2019, Amazon updated the program’s guidelines which included instructions about how to calculate recyclability, product-to-packaging ratio, and requirements for oversized items. Suppliers on Amazon had to switch to the appropriate packaging or pay a surcharge on each item shipped. But Amazon works directly with manufacturers to innovate and improve their packaging functionality in order to certify, according to Amazon’s sustainability report. They have testing facilities that identify steps manufacturers can take to improve their packaging. Now more than 2 million products qualify under the FFP program.

Overall, the FFP program sounds great, but I find that products with this option are difficult to find. That may be because the option is not offered since many companies are certified to use Frustration-Free Packaging automatically. But next time you’re ordering from Amazon, if this option is available, please select it and avoid packaging waste! Here’s what you’ll see if it is an option:

Lego Friends set from Amazon showing frustration free packaging option

Current Packaging Sustainability Initiatives

Amazon’s packaging sustainability mission is “to optimize the overall customer experience by collaborating with manufacturers worldwide to invent sustainable packaging that delights customers, eliminates waste, and ensures products arrive intact and undamaged.” Additionally, Amazon committed $10 million to the Closed Loop Fund; they’ve committed funding to support The Recycling Partnership in its effort to improve recycling across the United States; they are a member of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC). Amazon also uses the How2Recycle labeling system mentioned in my post about Walmart packaging.

Screenshot of Amazon's homepage

Plastic Air Pillows

More often than not, however, it seems that Amazon ships items with what are called ‘air pillows,’ those plastic bags filled with air to cushion products. In theory, these can perhaps be reused or recycled through a place that accepts plastic bags for recycling (note that those are likely not recycled). But largely, they add to the plastic bag waste stream and pollute our waterways. The use of these is the exact opposite of sustainability.

French press shipped from Amazon, with plastic air pillows.
French press shipped from Amazon, with plastic air pillows. Note: I ended up returning this French press and was able to reuse the same air pillows. But in most cases, air pillows are not reusable.

In another order, Amazon used a box closer to the size of the item package, and thus did not use air pillows. I wish they ship products like this more often.

Computer speakers shipped without plastic air pillows.
Computer speakers shipped in a cardboard box without plastic air pillows.

What to do with Amazon Packaging

It can be confusing and overwhelming to figure out what to do with all that packaging. Note that Amazon makes no attempt to reclaim its packaging for reuse or direct recycling. This is a missed opportunity to greatly reduce the impact of its packaging. The packaging is solely the consumer’s responsibility.

They have a page that helps you figure out what to do with their packaging. You can view each type of packaging Amazon that uses in its shipping and delivery, and see how they suggest you dispose of it. Their cardboard boxes and brown paper packaging are recyclable in most municipal recycling systems. However, their common bubbled and plastic shipping bags are difficult to recycle. You have to take them to a specific location that collects those types of plastic films, such as Publix which I mentioned in a previous post.

Last year, Amazon launched a fully recyclable paper padded mailer that protects products during shipping. I have received one or two of these but I was not aware that these were fully recyclable until researching for this post. Although you do not get a choice of packaging at checkout, fully recyclable packaging is long overdue so I’m glad it’s now available.
Amazon package recycling page

But Amazon’s priority is profit

In many ways, I am excited about all of the things Amazon is doing for sustainability. Amazon will always be looking at profit first, and overall they could do so much more. They should be more directly involved with Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which I wrote about in a previous post. Amazon encourages and advises its suppliers to follow EPR concepts, but the company does not have a take-back program for its own shipping packages.

Many consumers want to buy products that are sustainable and eco-conscious, but often don’t know what options they have. Amazon could make a significant difference just by overtly advertising their sustainable packaging options and Frustration-Free Packaging (FFP) program. I suspect many people just throw away much of the packaging they receive only because they don’t know what else to do with it.

Overall, Amazon is not doing enough. They, alone, have the ability to change the entire packaging industry.

Solutions

The most important thing you can do for the environment and your finances is to buy less. You can try to avoid purchases from Amazon and instead choose a local retailer. When you do make purchases, be a conscious consumer. Next time you order from Amazon, look for the FFP option if it’s available. Recycle all cardboard and recyclable mailers in your curbside recycling or at your local recycling center. Save the plastic mailers and recycle them at a local grocery store that accepts them. Last, but not least, the Plastic Pollution Coalition currently has a petition asking Amazon to stop using single-use plastic packaging. I’ve signed, will you please sign too?

Below, I’ve listed several companies that sell environmentally friendly packaging for shipping. There is no reason that companies like Amazon can’t switch to those types of mailers.

In my next post, I’ll explore companies that already have sustainability built into their products and unique packaging solutions. In a future post, I’ll address whether online shopping or in-person shopping is better for the environment.

Thanks for reading, and please subscribe!

“If you want to eliminate waste in your life – and in the world – the answers will always come down to one simple thing: consume differently.” -Tom Szaky

 

Companies that sell eco-friendly shipping packaging:

EcoEnclose

Ecovative Design and Paradise Packaging – mushroom packaging

Ranpak paper packaging

Uline carries a line of paper cushioning products

Western Pulp sells molded fiber packaging

Footnotes: