Recyclable does not mean Recycled

Jul 14, 2023

Last Updated: Jul 18, 2023

Don't be fooled by the term "recyclable"! The reality of recycling extends far beyond the composition of an item...

For a material to be recycled, it must be economically feasible to do so. This means that everyone in the supply chain needs to make a profit, making recycling efforts worthwhile to them.

Many materials are "recyclable in theory," which means that they can be recycled under the right conditions. However, these conditions often don't exist in practice or in the local context.

This is similar to the claim you often see in Singapore that a material is “compostable” and yet there are no local composting facilities. So, in practice, compostable materials will be incinerated.

So, what are the key considerations?

Several factors determine the feasibility of recycling a material:

  • Infrastructure: The existence of a local system to collect, sort, and sell the waste material. The recyclability of materials varies depending on where you live in the world.
  • Volume: The amount of material must be sufficient to justify the effort and cost of transportation and processing.
  • Quality: The sorted and baled plastic must meet certain purity standards. Recycling companies prefer bales of plastic that consist of 100% of a specific type of plastic (e.g., HDPE, PET, PP). However, some tolerance for impurities is usually allowed. If a plastic is difficult to sort, it becomes challenging to meet the purity requirements of recycling companies.
  • Cost of processing: The infrastructure costs associated with transportation, sorting, and baling must be low enough to be covered by the profit from selling the recycled material. This includes fixed costs like rental of premises and machinery expenses.*
  • Cost of delivery: The buyer of the waste material must consider the freight charges involved in transporting the waste plastic to their facilities. Since most recycling of Singapore's waste happens overseas, delivery costs become a significant consideration.

The challenge in Singapore

The plastic sorting process at Material Recovery Facilities is manual, and state-of-the-art sorting technology is not employed. As a result, achieving high purity levels for most types of plastics is challenging.

Some plastics are relatively easy to sort, such as PET water bottles and white HDPE milk bottles. These can be quickly identified and manually sorted with high levels of purity.

However, other plastics pose more significant challenges. Bales of thin plastic films, food containers, or colored bottles tend to have lower levels of purity.

It's important to note that this situation is different in an industrial setting, where large volumes of 100% pure plastic waste are more easily generated and valuable to recyclers.

Why not invest in better sorting technology?

While it is true that investing in better sorting technology would likely improve the purity of baled waste plastic, the cost-benefit analysis may not justify such an investment. It's important to remember that waste plastic holds very low value so the gains from improved sorting have to be significant.

Take this purely hypothetic scenario. If it were to cost, say, $20 million to acquire the latest and greatest machines for automatic waste sorting, but the resulting increase in recycled plastic over the next 10 years was only estimated to be worth $10 million, the financial viability of the investment would be questionable. 

Additionally, in this scenario, the carbon gains from recycling more plastic instead of incineration may not offset the substantial carbon footprint generated by the new machinery.

The decision to invest in better technology for sorting consumer waste is not a straightforward one and demands thorough analysis. 

Alternative recycling labels: The UK Example

You may have come across products from the UK that feature these more "honest" labels. 

UK Recycling Labels

Instead of using vague terms like "recyclable," they indicate the likelihood of a material being recycled and encourage you to check with your local municipality.

The example above refers to three materials—a cardboard sleeve, a metal tray, and a plastic film. Technically, all of them could be called "recyclable." In fact, a producer could claim that they are "100% recyclable!!" 

However, these labels make it clear that, in practice, only one of the three is widely recycled, one might be recycled depending on your local recycling system, and the third one is destined for the trash.

Another variation also lets you know that something should be rinsed…

UK Recycling Labels Alternative

Isn't that awesome? Let's hope we see more of this kind of information available to consumers.


* Note: In Singapore, the cost of sorting recyclables in blue bins is partially subsidized by the Public Waste Collectors. As part of their contract with NEA to collect waste, they are obligated to provide collection and sorting services for recyclables. While these services may incur losses, they are considered an acceptable cost within the overall profitability of the NEA contract. However, if the collection and sorting of public recyclables were a standalone business, it would likely be economically unfeasible. This is evident from the practices of independent operators like the Karung Guni, who selectively deal with high-value waste materials such as paper, cardboard, and metals, while avoiding loss makers like glass and plastic.

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