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Why Reuse Trumps Recycling and Reduce Trumps ‘em Both, Part 1

By Scott Gordon, Director of Sales, HelioPower

Every Monday morning I hear the procession of truck engines and hydraulic arms working their way through my neighborhood. One truck comes for my trash, a second for my green waste (lawn clippings and such), and the last picks up my recycling. The trash is eventually buried, the green waste composted, and the recycling, well, recycled. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and all that jazz, but have you ever wondered what happens to all that recycled stuff we throw away? That’s right – throw away. Just because the bin’s a different color doesn’t change the significance of this wasteful action. One could argue that while recycling has its virtues, it actually goes a long way toward encouraging waste. We throw our recycling in the blue or green bin, and a trash truck (I mean recycling truck) hauls it out of sight and out of mind. We hope these materials are eventually refashioned into something useful once again, but is the process of recycling itself really green? Sure it’s better than the alternative (burying it), but how green is recycling? I guess it depends. In an attempt to answer this question, let’s take a look at the afterlife of a discarded plastic bottle.

After you’ve enjoyed that cold bottle of water and tossed it in the recycling bin a lengthy chain of events kicks off to convert that plastic bottle into something new and exciting, right? Well, 80% of the time, your bottle winds up in the landfill anyway regardless of your intentions. For the 20% that make the journey to resurrection, it’s a long arduous road.

Your bottle is tossed into a container marked for recycling. Once a week, a large diesel fueled truck rumbles through your neighborhood and collects these relics and hauls them off to a sorting center. There your bottle is separated from the riffraff and joins ranks with millions of bottles just like it and is compacted into large cubes or shredded and baled. From here, your bottle is placed onto another diesel truck or train and usually exported to China for use in manufacturing plastic stuff. After arriving in China via container ship, your bottle is loaded on another diesel truck where it is transported to a facility that processes the bales into plastic pellets. These pellets are the primary ingredient used in molded and extruded plastic. The pellets are eventually shipped to a factory where they are molded into something you might find useful again, packaged, and loaded onto a diesel truck; taken to the port; loaded onto a container ship; sent across the Pacific, loaded onto another diesel truck, taken to a distribution center, loaded onto another truck, delivered to the store, purchased by you, brought home in your SUV, used for a brief time, and finally re-recycled.

The amount of energy consumed to recycle your bottle is immense. So immense in fact, that the earth would’ve been significantly better off if you drank that water out of the tap from a glass rather than from a bottle. More on this later.