Fragmented Recycling – A Global Problem
What do we mean by fragmentation in the recycling process?
In simple terms, it means that there is no uniformity in global recycling processes. Recycling processes, practices, and education differ from a community level up to state level as well as internationally. To understand the reasons why this is happening, we have to investigate some of the problems that are facing the recycling industry. Everyone knows that iron, aluminum, copper, and other metals are valuable and are readily accepted for recycling. But that is not the biggest problem facing the recycling industry today. Let us take a closer look at the two lines that are part of our daily life.
THE WORLD OF PLASTIC
In most countries down to the community level, plastic is collected for recycling. The collection of plastic provides food on the table in a lot of African and Asian countries. The big problem is that not ALL plastic can be recycled. For instance, the plastic wrapper of your daily bread cannot be recycled. The same applies to black or white plastic food trays. It simply clogs up recycling machines with the consequential problems.
Consider this: you are in a shopping mall and you see a bin to dump your plastic waste. The bin is properly marked and everybody is using it. People will dump all plastic and what THEY regard as plastic in the bin. You may think that the problem lies in education, best practices, and communication. That again may only be partly true. If you add a long list of do’s and don’ts on a waste collecting bin most people won’t bother to read it and there are going to be people who simply won’t understand it.
Fragmented information brings us to the problem of plastic that cannot be recycled. The chemical resin of plastic is normally indicated at the bottom of a product. Certain chemical resins can’t be recycled together as it will cause an unacceptable chemical reaction. It makes sorting difficult and time-consuming.
Above is just the tip of the iceberg facing plastic recycling. That is why a lot of plastic just goes into landfills.
Let us then take a look at the economics of plastic. Plastic is going to be with us for the foreseeable future, the simple reason being that there are currently no other economical lightweight replacement product available.
Contaminated and soiled plastic caused a ban on the import of recyclable plastic by the world’s main importer, mainland China. On a daily basis even more plastic is pumped into the world. In itself this not bad, it creates space for more innovative recycling systems. All in all this won’t reduce worldwide production until an economically viable replacement for plastic could be found.
Fragmented communication and legislation have a negative impact on recycling as a whole. Worldwide legislation to ban, the use of polystyrene food containers and plastic wrapping for instance, will go a long way easing recycling problems. The global community in general should be informed why these packaging types are unacceptable and what the acceptable alternative will be. A broad based and continued resistance to these types of packaging will kill the demand for these items. Communities should be uniformly educated of what is economically recyclable and what not and then, most importantly, what to do with the rest!
THE WORLD OF PAPER
Most of us still get our daily news via newspaper, contradicting earlier predictions. Most of the world still read books in paper format. All of us are using or receiving products in a carton in some way or the other.
Paper may not be facing the same recycling problems than plastic. The good news of paper recycling is that each ton of recycled paper is saving some 3 cubic meters of landfill space. According to Earth 911, it is also true that each ton of recycled paper saves some 17 trees and 7000 gallons of water.
Paper is probably the easiest to collect and to recycle. It all boils down to economics, or shall we say, a fragmentation of economics. The truth is, that especially in third world countries cartons are collected and other paper types ignored. The reason being that weight is money and that the money is in the weight.
However, paper has its own inherent recycling problems. Milk containers, for instance, are glued together and that causes a problem in the recycling process. Plastic and glue that keeps the container together are not that easy or cost-effective to separate.
That brings us to economic fragmentation. Some states and countries do have laws in place regulating the recycling of paper. But are those regulations uniformly enforced? We doubt that. There is even more fragmentation when it comes to communication. It is fine to tell people what to recycle and then turn it into law, but the more effective way will be to educate them on WHY that it is being done.
We established the fact that all paper and plastic that are not recycled are being dumped into landfill sites. Landfills are a necessity of life on earth. We will need landfills or dumping grounds, as they are referred to in the third world, for many years to come. What is the problem then you may ask? That brings us to the fragmented practices applied in different counties, countries and states, and even the continents.
An eco-friendly landfill site should provide proper isolation against rain, air, and groundwater pollution. This may be enforced properly in CERTAIN first world countries, but is largely ignored in the third world. Remember the speculation that Africa is becoming the dumping ground for first world industrialized countries? The biggest culprits are West African countries like Ghana and the first world countries that areusing it as a dumping site. Why is that happening? One can only blame fragmented and flawed international laws, regulations, and the poor enforcement thereof.
The biggest dumping culprit appears to be the world’s economic giant, mainland China, with its uncontrolled dumping into the oceans and rivers and the subsequent pollution problems. Again, fragmented to zero international laws and the enforcement there off are the main culprits.
In conclusion, what are we going to do about it? That is the looming question, and it is not stopping there! Who is going to initiate uniformed practices, and who is going to enforce them? Unfortunately, we think the solution will have to be a political one. The way world politics are fragmented, we are far from a satisfactory solution. But each one of us can make start by educating our children and setting an example ourselves.