The graphic above represents a broken recycling system. Instead of completing a circuit, it stops. That’s what happens if people don’t buy recycled products. Here’s how recycling is supposed to work.
- You haul recyclables to the curb.
- Someone picks them up and takes them to a material recovery facility (MRF)
- The MRF sorts out the various kinds of paper, plastic, metal, and glass and sells it to a manufacturer.
- The manufacturer uses the recycled materials as a raw material to make new products.
- Someone buys the recycled products.
Buying recycled products creates a market for what you haul out to the curb. It’s what makes recyclables valuable commodities rather than trash. If your municipal recycling program can’t at least break even, it will eventually have to go out of business. And therefore, you won’t be able to participate in recycling anymore.
Making recycled products reduces air and water pollution––and especially reduces greenhouse gas emissions––conserves natural resources, and saves energy. It also encourages development of new, environmentally friendly technologies and creates jobs that strengthen the local economy.
Chances are that the jars, cans, and bottles your food and beverages come in are made with recycled content. But that’s not what this article means by recycled products. I’m focusing on consumer goods made mostly or entirely from post-consumer or post-industrial waste. Recently, some companies have also started to make products with plastic retrieved from the oceans.
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What are recycled products?
Technically, “recycled products” should refer to products made entirely from material recovered from the waste stream. Products with less than 100% recovered materials would then be “recycled content products.” Hardly anyone uses language with quite that much precision.
A product may have very little recycled material, in which case calling it a recycled product would amount to greenwashing. Other than that, recycled products and recycled content products both take material out of the waste stream and increase demand for the materials recycling programs collect. I’ll just use one term for it all, like most of us do.
Recycled products require less energy and fewer resources than products made with virgin materials. They reduce waste, pollution, and pressure on dwindling landfill space. And they also have the same range of quality as non-recycled products. That is, some are very well made and work reliably––others, not so much.
100% Recycled Glass Textured Large Oval Bowl
The Original Recycled Seatbelt Guitar Strap
Eco Living Recycled Glass Juice/Water/Wine/Cocktail Glasses 8 oz (Set of 6)
How good are recycled products?
When recycling first got started, it was hard to find recycled products. The earliest ones frankly weren’t very good. Being new, unfamiliar, and uncommon, they cost more than ordinary products. Now, giant companies buy recyclables to make new consumer products from them.
Unifi, for example, makes a recycled plastic product, Repreve™ polyester, from discarded drink bottles. Other companies use it to make clothing, automotive fabrics, curtains, carpets, upholstery fabric, tents, backpacks, and more. Many of them boast in their advertising that they use Repreve. Trex makes another recycled plastic product, composite lumber from plastic films such as grocery bags.
These are only two companies that make materials for recycled products. Companies that make consumer products from such materials include Green Toys, Recover Brands, Rothy’s, Looptworks, and TerraCycle. Their reputation depends on their products being as good as anything made entirely from virgin materials.
POLYWOOD AD5030CR Classic Folding Adirondack Chair, made of composite lumber from recycled plastic.
TerraCycle Circuit Board Coasters, set of 6 — This set of six coasters is made from waste circuit board material. These will not compute, but they will protect your furniture and help keep waste out of landfills.
Green Toys Train, made from 100% recycled plastic
How expensive are recycled products?
Products with recycled contents have the reputation of being more expensive compared to virgin products. They might be, or they might actually be less expensive. The variables that determine the prices of different goods is too complex to try to analyze here, but I can point out some major factors:
The cost and availability of raw materials make a big difference. Not long ago, China eagerly bought so much product from American MRFs that American companies found it hard to compete. Unfortunately, MRFs exported bales of materials with a high contamination rate, in part because aspirational recycling sent them too much material that they should have never received. China finally got tired of buying recyclables and sending so much of it to their landfills.
Now that China has slammed the door on importing recyclables, the whole industry, worldwide, is in an uproar. But now the door is open for American companies to fill the void. Eventually, that should result in lower commodity prices for recycled raw materials compared to virgin materials.
The law of supply and demand likewise directly affect prices. The more of a product a company can make, the less it costs per unit. The faster a product flies off the shelves, the less keeping it in stock costs the store. And if certain recycled products are only available as boutique items, they will naturally cost more than general stock items.
Also, keep life-cycle costs in mind. If you buy a deck made of composite materials such as Trex, it will cost more than treated lumber. But you won’t ever have to waterproof it, stain it, or paint it, and it will still be in good condition long after a wooden deck has deteriorated.
Hammermill Great White 100% Recycled
20lb Copy Paper, 8.5 x 11, 1 Ream,
SUGA Recycled Wetsuit Yoga Mat
POLYWOOD NCC2280-WH Nautical Arms Chaise
Why buy recycled products?
The more post-consumer waste in products you buy, the better. Copier paper with 100% recycled content creates demand for three times as much recycled paper as a 35% recycled content paper. And, of course, it cuts down no trees.
The last time I needed to buy paper, though, the store had nothing but virgin paper or 35% recycled paper. It’s not that it was out of 100% recycled paper I had bought the previous time. There was no space on the shelf where it could go. Apparently, the store’s customers decided that the little bit extra it cost for 100% recycled paper products was too much. So the product spent too long on the stores shelves.
Consumers sent a message that they didn’t value 100% recycled paper products. If more people had bought it, it would have sent a message that there is high demand for it. With lower demand. MRFs can’t get a good price from selling it.
MRFs used to pay cities for the recyclables they collected. As a result of the Chinese crackdown, they have started charging a tipping fee instead. So your trash collection fees may have gone up.
Plenty of other considerations determine the economics of local recycling programs, but I hope you can see how important your buying decisions are. If yours is the only household that makes a particular decision, it doesn’t make much difference. If tens of thousands of households make the same decision, it matters a lot.
If you can’t find recycled products in a store, ask for them. See if they do special orders. If enough people want them, soon enough you’ll see them on the shelves. If you find a store unresponsive to your requests, shop somewhere else.
Meanwhile, it’s easy to find recycled products online.
Outerknown 100% Recycled Polyester Nomadic Volley Swim Trunk
BPA Free Bowls Made from Recycled Plastic in the USA, Set of 6,
Spanish 100% Recycled Glass Medium Incised Salsa Bowl, Set of 2
Buy recycled: If you’re not buying recycled, you’re throwing it all away / Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection
Buy recycled products: closing the loop / A Recycling Revolution
Here’s why it’s so important to buy recycled products / Ask Umbra®, Grist. October 20, 2016