Committing to recycling the “non-recyclable”

Closed Loop Plastics
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Institute of Making

Waste items most commonly known to be recyclable include glass bottles, aluminum cans, and plastics like water bottles or milk jugs. Many opportunities to capture and divert potentially valuable materials from the landfill are missed. Examples of these missed opportunities include industrial waste, like solvents, paints and adhesives, and electronic waste, such as computers, microwaves and washing machines.

Industrial and electronic outputs contribute a significant percentage of all the waste generated in the U.S., yet they continue to largely avoid the municipal recycling stream. Industrial activities currently generate nearly 7.6 billion tons of solid waste in the U.S. each year, 3,000% of the total municipal waste generated by Americans annually; on the other hand, electronic waste is currently the fastest growing solid waste stream, growing two to three times faster than any other waste stream.

With our currently inefficient recycling infrastructure, the cost of collecting, processing and separating these materials exceeds their value in the market for recycled commodities. In short, there is little economic incentive to capture them for recycling. The truth is that most of the waste we generate is not considered recyclable by the public system, and is instead destined for linear disposal by landfill or incineration.

Regardless of the fact that comprehensive systems are not in place to effectively address these growing waste streams, some companies and manufacturers are taking it upon themselves to put forth the resources to provide their solutions.

In 2004, Subaru of Indiana became the first manufacturing facility in North America to throw the full weight of its organization behind the push to zero-landfill practices. For more than a decade, auto manufacturer Subaru has been building their cars plants where 100% of all manufacturing waste is either recycled or turned into electricity. One of the ways Subaru does this is tracking its waste with bar-coded containers such that none of it is left unaccounted for.

Industrial companies like Henkel are further developing their sustainability record by offering ways to recycle typically difficult-to-recycle industrial product waste. Through TerraCycle’s new LOCTITE® Anaerobic Adhesive Recycling Program, Henkel customers can purchase a postage-paid recycling box that they fill with empty LOCTITE anaerobic adhesive containers and send to TerraCycle for recycling. TerraCycle will thermally treat the containers, and turn them into new plastic products. The nature of this waste stream allows Henkel to fill a sustainability gap across industries including packaging, construction and manufacturing.

E-waste also a huge problem in scale and volume of waste generation, it is a positive that some consumer electronics manufacturers are developing new initiatives to help reduce and recycle their waste. Apple has introduced an experimental recycling robot, Liam, which would help take apart and re-purpose 1.2 million phones a year. Multinational computer company Dell allows consumers to responsibly dispose of unwanted equipment through their mail-back program, and became the first in the industry to offer a computer made with third party-certified closed-loop recycled plastics.

These entities are in a position to create custom solutions for their waste, which is presently generated in abundance with no clear answers from the current recycling infrastructure. Companies committing to recycling the “non-recyclable” or “difficult-to-recycle” impact how both businesses and consumers see waste, recycling and what it means to be sustainable.

Tags: Electronics | E-Waste | Recycling | Waste | Zero Waste

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