DIRECTOR OF RESEARCH & WASTE STREAM SUSTAINABILITY KRISTIN KINDER
How does recycling actually work?
American recycling is turning into garbage. The world's recycling is in chaos. Is this the end of recycling? Dramatic recycling headlines have captured the public's attention. But, most people don’t keep reading. And, if they do, they have little background on our recycling system.
I hope to bring you beyond the headlines into the world that I find infinitely fascinating and relevant by laying a framework to help you understand this incredibly vast system that most assume is magic, but few know enough about to truly appreciate.
The goal of recycling is simple: turn old, unwanted things into new, valuable things. This keeps natural resources in nature, where they serve us most, and also offers economic benefits. (In 2017, recycling accounted for over half a million U.S. jobs.1)
Why does this matter? From the piece of paper we print for just one meeting to the packaging that brought that doo-dad we ordered online but forgot about, we're using limited, precious natural resources only to make things we throw away. We call this a linear economy (see diagram).
Recycling is Circular2
A circular economy capitalizes on resources we’ve already taken from nature to make and distribute our products.
We are focusing on recycling, but reducing, reusing, and remanufacturing save even more natural resources. The lower a circle enters the chain, the fewer the natural resources it uses.
Extracting raw materials will always use more natural resources than recycling, because with recycling, materials re-enter the manufacturing process later – after extraction, transportation, and refining.
For example, making a recycled aluminum can requires only 8% of the energy necessary to make a can by extracting raw materials.3 Additionally, recycling one ton of aluminum cans saves over 4 metric tons of bauxite ore (the main source for aluminum).4
How Recycling Works
Today, turning old, unwanted things into new, valuable things requires three steps:
- Collecting – Recyclables are transported from the point that you use them to a recycling center.
- Sorting – The recycling center puts the like materials together.
- Product Development– Re-processors purchase materials from a recycling center and melt, chip, and grind them into feedstock for new products.
Recycling depends on two actions from individuals (steps 1 and 3): putting the right things in the recycling bin and buying things made from recycled materials. If we're not doing both, we're not actually recycling.
Tip of the month: Buying items made from recycled materials creates a healthy recycling system. Look for products made from post-consumer recycled content, which means that the recyclables went through a recycling program. A few, easy places to start: laundry detergent bottles, paper towels, toilet paper, plastic bottles, and even clothing.
Over the coming months, we'll travel into more depth on each of these three steps. You’ll find that it’s not magic – it’s far more interesting.
2 Graphic credit: https://www.led-professional.com/resources-1/white-papers/lightingeurope-white-paper-serviceable-luminaires-in-a-circular-economy#&gid=1&pid=1
A Stream Runs Through It
Lessons from Wastequip’s Earth Day
I was wearing waders, my grungiest jeans, a shirt that I hope is still wearable and two pairs of gloves. Ten of my Wastequip colleagues had joined me for our first Earth Day celebration and volunteer event.
When we planned to clean up a stream in Charlotte, I had imagined picking up wrappers, bottles, and cans along the waterway. I had visions of the glowy feeling of “making a difference” and explaining to the team how important this seemingly-small task actually is. In National Geographic, scientists estimate that every year, enough plastic trash to fill five plastic bags finds its way to our oceans for every foot of coastline – worldwide. In developing nations, we believe the problem stems from lack of formal waste collection programs. However, our country contributes to the problem through litter that flows from the side of the road or small streams to rivers to the ocean to where the currents converge.
Instead of easy-to-capture trash, we found 20 submerged shopping carts, old bikes, and tires stuck in muck so deep that tree branches had grown through them. The mud that filled them contained small bits of plastic and plastic film so wet that we couldn’t tell what was a leaf and what was a plastic bag. It all smelled like it had been stuck there for 5 years….because it probably had.
As I was sitting there with mud spraying on my face, sweating in the Carolina heat, pulling on an abandoned shopping cart to no avail, I reconsidered my decades-long commitment to saving this planet. It was hard work, it was thankless, and no one was around to even notice the difference. I also worried that this would be our first and last Earth Day event.
But, my coworkers were so focused on cleaning up they didn’t have time to complain. We worked together to dig out every single item – even after the mud broke our tools. Eventually, I heard someone say, “When we do this next year, we should get a new shovel…”
When we left, we could see the stream flowing. Without the shopping-cart obstruction, the ecosystem looked much healthier.
Saving the planet, or I would argue, saving us, can feel arduous. But, when we go beyond what we believe we’re capable of, what our “day jobs” demand, we can chip away to a better tomorrow.
As we begin our sustainability journey at Wastequip, I believe we have the most important ingredients to accomplish anything – integrity in our leadership and an energetic team that works together. Stay tuned as we continue to find ways to help our planet and make Earth Day every day.
Liz Bothwell of Waste360 is a skilled interviewer – intellectually and emotionally. From 20-year career veterans like Adam Minter (famous for his book Junkyard Planet), and Anne Bahr Thompson (who motivates major brands to do good) to 9-year-old Ryan Hickman who has already recycled over half a million cans and bottles, she interviews everyone with the same warmth. So, when she asked if I was available for her NothingWasted! Podcast, the only answer was yes.
Her ability to ask questions that are equally informative for the audience and exciting to her guests is noteworthy. And, she really does her homework, so our conversation felt more like old friends having coffee.
Listen to this episode to find out:
- Why I recommend spending as much time as you can at landfills and transfer stations
- What I learned on the soccer field that has helped me at work
- The sustainable businesses I can’t live without and why I’m so excited about them
Q&A with Kristin Kinder
Wastequip, the leading North American manufacturer of waste handling equipment, recently hired waste industry and environmental consulting veteran Kristin Kinder, as its new director of research and waste stream sustainability. In this newly-created role, Kinder will serve as the company’s resident expert on waste streams and driving positive environmental change.
We sat down with Kinder, recently named to Waste360’s 2019 40 Under 40, to get her take on the new role and how she believes it will benefit Wastequip and the waste industry.
Tell us about the new role and how your experience and interest align with it?
Environmental issues captured my heart in kindergarten. In college, I had heard facts like, “The U.S. consumes one-third of the world’s paper, but we’re only 5% of the population,” but I couldn’t relate to them until I moved to Germany and saw first-hand what consuming less actually looks like – reusable bags, reusable napkins and families with one car.
Later, at Waste Management, I was exposed to collection operations, MRF tours, municipal recycling education programs, and even their national recycling behavior change campaign. Then at ENGIE Insight, I scientifically investigated the waste streams of large businesses by literally diving in their trash, and I started thinking more about where waste fits with energy, water and carbon.
All of this prepared me to join Wastequip, where I get to delve into issues that matter to me and are valuable to Wastequip, explore all of the complexities of a problem and share my ideas with the company, the industry and hopefully beyond.
And the best part? I’m doing work my 5-year-old self would be proud of.
What is Wastequip’s vision for the future of the industry and how will this role help drive it?
Wastequip is the largest stand-alone waste equipment manufacturer and has been developing products that increase productivity, improve ROI and ensure safety for more than 30 years. We hold more than 40 patents with another 14 pending.
In creating my position, our CEO asked, “What could we accomplish if we applied that same ingenuity to sustainability?”
Through my role, we want to objectively understand pertinent industry topics and the waste streams affected to create products and solutions that will make the greener choice the easier choice. Current topics include the impacts of recycling markets on contamination, domestic production and packaging, as well as current initiatives to process and reduce food waste.
I will share my findings with our product development, engineering, sales, customer service and marketing teams to create innovative and impactful products for long-lasting sustainability solutions.
What do you think are the top opportunities facing the waste industry? What are the challenges/risks?
I believe that our greatest challenge and opportunity is employing the right solution to each challenge we face.
We live in the first era to create products specifically to be wasted. We are all accustomed to the convenience and accessibility this has afforded us, so lightening our impact involves new systems and technology as well as culture shifts.
Sustainable materials management (minimizing impact over a product’s entire lifecycle) and circular economy (keeping existing materials circulating and resources in nature) are two valuable schools of thought. Sometimes they align, sometimes they diverge and the solution for each challenge will likely need both.
Ultimately, we need to think smarter, collaborate, use data and build systems and products that have a lighter impact and are easy for consumers to use. Better communication is the first step.
The waste industry holds incredibly valuable data on how to use resources better because we own and manage the evidence from upstream. Our discards contain information related to how we can design better products, how long products last and how consumers are using them. Sharing that information along the chain is probably our greatest lever.
Are there any common misconceptions that run counter to your goals?
A healthy recycling system depends on three abilities: to collect the right materials from consumers, to sort them and to market them to a company that can turn them into something else.
Over the last year, the markets that accept recyclables have changed dramatically, and recycling is currently experiencing a period of instability. To alleviate shortterm economic pressures, many communities have (understandably) had to limit their recycling programs, divert their recyclables to a landfill temporarily or shut down their recycling programs altogether.
I hope that soon, consumers understand three things about recycling:
First, recycling is a dynamic business. It depends on the materials entering our everyday lives, our latest sorting technology and the value of those materials economically. The average consumer does not understand how complicated recycling is, which can cause them to lose faith in the system when they read only headlines.
Second, recycling is about much more than putting something in a blue bin. It’s about buying products made from recycled materials to keep the cycle turning. These shoes I’m wearing were made from recycled bottles!
Third, just because you want something to be recyclable doesn’t mean it is recyclable. When the wrong thing ends up in your bin, it can be an expensive trip to the landfill and compromise the opportunity to capture good recyclables. We call this wishcycling.
I hope people will continue putting only the correct materials in their recycling because I believe that our recycling systems will rebound stronger from their current headwinds.
What, in your opinion, is the most important factor in getting end-users to adopt more sustainable practices related to consumption and waste management?
Make it simple. People want to do the right thing, but, often, environmental issues feel unrelatable, inconvenient, uncomfortable or unfamiliar.
If we can create systems in which the sustainable choice is the easy choice, we can progress much faster.
Where can we learn more about your work?
Please visit the Wastequip website blog and social media: Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn or check out my TEDx talk here.
Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.