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Recycling is a Business

Recycling is a business. It is billed as a “feel good” activity but it is important to remember that it is a business and it only works if the companies that work in the recycling markets make money.

Often waste management companies charge less for picking up the materials for recycling than they do for picking up the trash that goes to landfill or incineration. For example, NYC pays Sims Metal Management (its residential waste and recycling vendor) less to pick up residential recycling than what they pay to landfill and incinerate the city's trash. One of the reasons why this model works is because Sims is betting that it can make money on selling the recyclable materials to other companies as a commodity. The companies who buy the recyclables are looking for consistent, high quality and clean material so that they can turn it into products and packaging that can be sold. This is why it is important to make sure your recyclables are clean!

Companies like Sims assume that not everything in the recycle bin is recyclable and that they will have to do some work to separate out the usable recyclables. However, if it is too expensive to sort and they have to send most of the recycle bags to landfill than their business model does not work.

As a reminder to recycle right one must:

  • Remove liquid and food debris

  • Do a quick rinse

And the following should never be put in the recycle bin (check your local regulations for a specific list of do’s and don’ts):

  • Styrofoam

  • Plastic bags and other forms of non-rigid plastic

  • Paper towels

  • Textiles (separate recycle process)

  • E-waste (separate recycle process)

Just as important as recycling right is to buy products made of recycled content because that creates demand for recyclables. Without the pressure by consumers to request / ask for products to be made of recycled content companies will not buy or make products made of recycled content. And without demand for recycled product there is no profit in recycling.

If you work at a company, ask your purchasing department to buy products made of recycled material (i.e. paper, company SWAG, packaging, etc.) and to create an EPP (Environmentally Preferable Purchasing Guidelines) to guide company purchases if they don't already have one. And in your personal life, choose items made with recycled contents, send praise to companies that are using recycled materials and call companies asking them to use more recycled materials.

To understand the recyclability of material here is a quick cheat sheet:


Infinitely recyclable, so make sure you pick aluminum can (if not a reusable bottle!) for your next cold drink.

This material is energy intensive to mine so make sure to recycle it and ask your manufacturers to use recycled aluminum.

Cardboard & White Office Paper

Recyclable about 5-7 x before its fibers are too short to be turned into cardboard & paper again. To make recycled paper and cardboard, virgin fiber is added to recycled paper to strengthen the fibers. Once paper has been recycled 5-7 times, it can become paste-y like and become newspaper or egg cartons

Tip - Try to print less as paper can't be recycled forever

Plastic #1, #2, #5

It typically does not get recycled back into the same plastic product! But most people think it does. For a plastic water bottle (#1 plastic) to be recycled back into a plastic water bottle it has to be mixed with virgin plastic. When plastic is too degraded it gets down-cycled into a piece of clothing (Fleece, shoes) or park benches, decking etc.

Rule of thumb is that plastic may be recycled 1-2 times and usually it is down-cycled and then quickly ends up in a landfill, an incinerator, or in our waterways or natural environment. Single use plastic really is single use (maybe it can be double use if we are lucky).

Plastic recycling is no silver bullet. It's most ideal to consume less plastic and switch to reusables and refillables if you can! And stay away from plastic #3, #4 and #7 which are not recyclable in most markets.


Infinitely recyclable! The catch is that it is best to reuse glass rather than recycle it given how hard it is to recycle glass. Also depending on where you live and work, glass recycling may not be occurring (it is heavy to transport, in single stream recycling it is crushed into small pieces contaminating the rest of the recycle, and it must be specially processed by recyclers).

Tip is to reuse glass if you can, choose non-colored glass because it is easier to recycle, and utilize glass deposit schemes to ensure it is recycled!

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