We think ourselves pretty knowledgeable when it comes to recycling. After all, we dutifully check the numbers on every plastic product in the kitchen, throwing recyclables into a special bin for curbside pickup. We throw our paper and glass products in with the plastics as well. But guess what? Curbside recycling hardly constitutes the entire recycling paradigm. There is a lot more to it than that.

We can break recycling efforts down into three categories: personal recycling, curbside recycling, and commercial recycling. All three have one thing in common: they seek to find new uses for waste materials rather than sending those materials to a landfill. But do all three types of recycling achieve the same result? No. The results are different across the board.

  • 1. Personal Recycling

Personal recycling might be the most prevalent of all despite the fact that we don’t always recognize it. How does it work? You engage in personal recycling every time you reuse something that would otherwise be thrown away. There are an unlimited number of examples to cite; here are just two:

  • Food Containers – Most of us buy food products that come in plastic containers. Rather than throwing those containers away, we use them to store leftovers in the fridge. We might use them to store other things like thumbtacks, nuts and bolts, etc.

  • Shipping Materials – Every time we order something online, it is delivered with shipping materials included. A lot of us don’t throw those shipping materials away. We save them and use them for our own shipping needs.

You might consider these two examples more repurposing than recycling. That’s fine. Repurposing is not a separate entity unto itself. It is a form of recycling that almost all of us engage in. The result is fewer materials thrown into landfills and less money spent on new materials. We all practice it because we are incentivized to do so. We do it because we get something out of it.

  • 2. Curbside Recycling

Curbside recycling is generally considered involuntary. If the local government didn’t require it, most of us wouldn’t bother. That said, curbside recycling seeks to keep paper, glass, and certain types of plastics out of landfills. It is a noble cause, but it rarely works – at least where plastic is concerned.

The main concern with municipal recycling is the cost. It is a very labor-intensive enterprise that rarely returns a profit. In fact, most municipalities lose a considerable amount of money on recycling efforts every year. It is a drain on the budget. Unfortunately, the result is that most recyclables end up in landfills anyway.

  • 3. Commercial Recycling

Commercial recycling is a business enterprise engaged in by companies like Tennessee’s Seraphim Plastics. Serving seven states including Arkansas, Kentucky and Missouri, Seraphim acquires and processes a variety of commercial plastics. They sell the recycled material to manufacturers who combine it with virgin plastic to create a lengthy list of products.

The results of commercial recycling are generally positive. Companies like Seraphim make a good profit. Meanwhile, they help control the cost of plastic manufacturing by supplementing material supply. Best of all, they keep commercial plastic waste out of landfills.

Both personal and commercial recycling work. Curbside recycling does not. What is the difference? Motive. If municipalities would turn over their recycling efforts to private operators and then not interfere with how they do business, the results would be drastically different. But do not hold your breath. I’s not likely to happen. Curbside recycling is a political enterprise. It is destined to continue despite being a losing proposition.

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