Circular File

Does Recycling Still Rule?

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Several years ago I started buying laundry detergent in “super concentrated” form. This new product had a number of advantages. For a start, less water was used to make the detergent. As an Okie, I can’t argue with anything that saves water. 

Less water also meant the bottles were smaller, which meant that less plastic needed to be recycled. Smaller containers also meant more laundry detergent could be shipped in one truck, saving fuel and lowering greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, more containers could be placed on the retailer’s shelf, allowing fewer shipments to each store. 

The only real drawback was ensuring that I used the right amount of detergent when I did the family laundry (yes, I do the laundry at home). The cap of the detergent bottle is used to measure the amount of detergent you need for a load. Some caps were easy to read. Some, unfortunately, required a guess because the lines were fuzzy. Like most people, when I wasn’t sure how much to use, I used too much.

As a result, when a new version of my favorite laundry detergent came out using “pacs” with pre-measured amounts of detergent, I immediately switched over so that I would quit wasting detergent. Better yet, the “pacs” came in a flexible plastic pouch that is smaller than the bottles used for the concentrate. My grocery bag became lighter and my laundry’s environmental footprint got smaller. 

All of this strikes me as a win-win for the environment. In addition to the energy savings in making and shipping this new package, less detergent is wasted because the right amount is pre-measured. What could possibly be wrong with this picture? 

You’ve got it. The flexible package can’t be recycled, but the rigid bottle can. The flexible package, to the best of my knowledge, has no recycled content, the rigid bottle could be made out of recycled HDPE. 

But wait a minute, doesn’t the solid waste “hierarchy” make source reduction the preferred choice, followed by recycling and disposal? As EPA notes, “source reduction means reducing waste at the source.” Reduced packaging is one of the many forms of source reduction. Is it a problem if the plastic pouch can’t be recycled or made of recycled content? 

The good news is that I haven’t heard many recyclers or environmentalists complain about these new unrecyclable packages. I’ve heard some negative comments, but so far no one is worrying that we are about to drown in a tidal wave of flexible plastic pouches.

And besides, I live in a county with a waste-to-energy plant. When I throw that plastic pouch away it will be burned in that facility and produce a very small amount of energy to heat my house. Given the winter we’ve been having, I’m all for that. Even if my waste went to a landfill, the impact of my pouches is less than minimal. 

I realize that some of my fellow recyclers want recycling to be at the top of the hierarchy. They believe that source reduction is a nice idea if it means people buy less stuff, but recycling is more important. Besides, they reason, you can count recycling, but you can’t count source reduction. But maybe now is the time to rethink our approach to waste reduction and recycling. Maybe now is the time to opt for a set of preferences with an emphasis on the greenest footprint possible, recyclable or not. 

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What's Circular File?

Waste and recycling insights from Chaz Miller, state programs director for the National Waste & Recycling Association

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Chaz Miller

Chaz Miller is state programs director for the National Waste & Recycling Association, Washington, D.C.
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