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Recyclability: Infrastructure

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Whether or not a material is recycled depends on various external factors, in addition to what is scientifically and technologically possible. Access to advanced equipment, demand for the recycled materials, infrastructure limitations, and availability of funding play important roles.

These factors vary widely by location, as well as by opportunities and resources available during any period of time.

collection infrastructure
contamination: garbage in the recycling bin 

plastics recyclability
sorting recyclables
what happens to recyclables?

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Recycling involves the creation of a new commodity, so for recycling to work, there must be buyers for the recycled material being created.

As with all commodities, demand for recycled materials and the price they can be sold for on the market fluctuates. To be viable in the marketplace, recycled materials need to uphold a certain level of quality, and be price competitive with virgin-manufactured materials.

From a practical perspective, items that can be turned into materials with the most stable market demand are the most recyclable.

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Manufacturers have specific requirements for the materials they use to build their products. If a recycled material causes defects in a product because of impurities or unpredictable behavior, its demand and price will go down.

In addition to manufacturer preference, the quality requirements for some products are bound by legal regulations. Food-grade plastics, for example, require strict testing to ensure safety to consumers.

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The goal of a recycling program is to maximize the recovery of products that can be processed into valuable recycled materials, and do so in the most cost-effective manner. Many trade-offs must be made when collectingsorting, and processing recyclable materials, and getting them to market.

The equipment used to clean, sort, and process recyclable materials is costly. The most advanced technologies tend to be the most costly. Recycling processors must weigh the cost of the equipment against the potential revenue from the recycled material being created, which is determined in part by the demand for the commodity on the market.

It may not be cost effective to invest in equipment to sort material with weak or unstable markets unless there is reason to believe the markets might improve.

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Collection Infrastructure

The recyclability of a product is also influenced by the municipality's ability to collect it in a manner that maintains its value.

The success of recycling processors is directly linked to the quality and quantity of the input materials or recyclables they receive for processing, which is influenced by the recycling collection programs in place. The higher the quality of the input material, the more a processor will be willing to pay for it.

For budget- and infrastructure-constrained municipalities, trade offs must be made between maximizing the value of material recovered for recycling, and collecting the material in the most cost-effective and efficient manner:

  • Drop off programs are the most cost-efficient, but in many municipalities, such as NYC, they are not practical for citizens, and consequently would be under-utilized. 
  • Curbside collection programs are more convenient for citizens and result in the collection of large tonnages of recyclables, but do so at a significant cost.

To increase efficiency, most curbside collection programs collect different recyclables together (see what NYC recycles). These mixed streams, however, typically have higher contamination rates than when each recyclable product is collected separately.

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Contamination: Garbage In the Recycling Bin

Contamination is a significant factor reducing the value of products recovered for recycling. The more contaminated the recyclables, the more work the recycling processor has to do to clean them.

Therefore, recycling processors require the materials they receive to meet minimum contamination standards (for example, less than 10% non-recyclables in the load).

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The behavior of the population asked to participate in recycling efforts will contribute to or limit the recyclability of the materials recovered. Making the program easy for citizens helps to increase participation, and simple, clear instructions help to reduce contamination of the recyclables with unwanted items.

Most municipalities use a two-pronged "carrot and stick" approach to improving participation in mandatory recycling programs. Education is the "carrot" teaching people what and how to recycle. Enforcement is the "stick" penalizing people with fines for not recycling or recycling improperly.

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