Recycler At Heart
Growing up in the Philippines, my brothers and I used to earn spare change by heeding the calls of scrap buyers going around neighborhoods calling out, “bote, bakal, diario” or bottles, metals, newspapers. They weighed the metals with crude handheld scales; they sorted the bottles according to color and size; and they measured stacks of old newspapers by the span of an outstretched hand, from the tip of the little finger to the tip of the thumb. The scrap buyers were stingy, and we were always disappointed that our stash never amounted to more than a few coins. Nevertheless, at a young age, I was aware that recycling was worth money.
So it was a marvel to me when I moved to the U.S. in the mid-1980s to see organized recycling in the form of yard sales and thrift stores. When my mother was still alive, she took great pleasure in hunting for bargains, much to the dismay of my father, who would have preferred to spend Saturday mornings reading the newspaper rather than driving my mother around to neighborhood yard sales. For a few dollars, she could assemble a dining set or a winter wardrobe for each of her children, who were immigrating to the U.S. with their families.
My first home in the U.S. contained many previously owned kitchen and furniture items. I still use a salad spinner and a Waring blender that my mother found for me more than 20 years ago. Just last week, I stopped by a Goodwill store and came home with a dozen books that cost me less than the price of just one brand-new book. I still occasionally browse thrift stores and consignment stores and get a kick out of finding exquisite items at a fraction of their retail cost.
In addition to the daily sorting for recycling of paper, plastic, and glass that happens now in many homes and places of business, twice a year, I go through closets, shelves, and storage bins to declutter. Anything that is usable goes to Purple Heart or Goodwill. Not much goes to landfills.
Multiply the personal acts of recycling by millions and add the efforts of commerce and industry and the results can be staggering. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the amount of municipal solid waste generated in the U.S. rose by 60% from 152 million tons in 1980 to 243 million tons in 2009, but the amount disposed of in landfills fell by 10% from 135 million tons in 1980 to 121 million tons in 2009. The amount recycled soared 465% from 14.5 million tons in 1980 to 82 million tons in 2009.
As this week’s cover story by Senior Editor Melody Bomgardner drives home, recycling and reusing can only grow, spurred not only by monetary incentives and environmental, health, and safety concerns but also by the growing scarcity of nonrenewable raw materials and the widening embrace of product stewardship, especially of consumer electronics. Bomgardner suggests that the ethos of eschewing waste is penetrating ever deeper in a reverse supply chain involving resellers and recyclers, not only creating profit centers but also pushing materials makers to design for recyclability, an effort that can involve complex research and development.
An example of that complex R&D is the story by Assistant Managing Editor Amanda Yarnell about efforts to adjust a widely practiced recycling step—removing ink from office paper, newspapers, magazines, catalogs, and other printed material—to the changing nature of the ink that must be removed. The process to deink paper printed conventionally with oily inks is well established, but with the rise of digital printing, which uses many water-based inks, the process is no longer fully adequate. Thus, chemists and engineers are looking for other ways to deink paper, for digital inks that will work with today’s deinking chemistry, and even for ways to make paper easily deinkable.
The investments to make products recyclable aren’t trivial, but as Bomgardner and Yarnell suggest in their stories, they can and do yield good returns. That just confirms what I learned as a child: Recycling = money.