Every time I see a news story discussing the failure of yet another municipal recycling program, I shake my head in dismay. Over nearly five decades of full-time employment, I have worked in multiple industries in which recycling was a way of life. It baffles me that industries can successfully recycle but municipalities cannot seem to. Why is that?
The short answer is that the government breaks everything it touches. But that’s too easy. It might be better to look at the problem in a little bit more depth in hopes of discovering a solution that actually works.
Recycling Steel and Aluminum
My first introduction to industrial recycling came by way of a tool and die plant where I worked as both a machine operator and inspector. Every day, more than 100 computerized machines would churn out dozens of different types of engine parts made from aluminum and steel. The plant produced an incredible amount of scrap metal daily.
We collected that scrap in large steel bins that were hauled away to the shipping and receiving department when full. Every morning, like clockwork, a local recycler would pick up the full bins and leave empty ones. It worked like a charm. All that scrap we produced by machining got melted down and put back into service.
Recycling Water for Laundry
My next industrial recycling experience came by way of a commercial laundry facility. I was plant manager for a company that provided cotton diapers and hospitality and table linens. When I first took the job, I was fascinated to learn that we recycle our water – or at least most of it. Only first run wash water was sent into the sewer after being treated. Second and third run water, along with rinse water, was treated in-house and used again.
The Incentive Was There
In both cases, the incentive to recycle was there. What was that incentive? Money. In the case of the tool and die plant, the company made money by selling its scrap metal to a local recycler. They recycled voluntarily. As for the linen plant, water recycling was required by law. Even so, recycling water reduced our monthly water bills significantly.
Financial incentives do amazing things. They explain why companies like Seraphim Plastics can effectively and efficiently recycle industrial scrap plastic in seven states. Profit is their financial incentive. Likewise, the companies they purchase plastic from have the opportunity to help the bottom line with a little extra cash.
Municipalities Have No Incentive
Unfortunately for taxpayers, municipalities are government institutions that have no incentive to make recycling work. Government entities are notorious for spending large sums of money and getting very little in return. That is exactly the case with so many failed recycling programs.
The number one killer in municipal recycling programs is sorting. Sorting recyclables from trash requires time and labor. Both cost money. Where recycled materials need to be cleaned before they can be sold, more time and labor are required. When it is all said and done, the recycled materials are too expensive to sell. So municipalities sell at a loss or just send the materials to the landfill anyway.
Industries of all types prove day in and day out that recycling is not only possible, but profitable too. It is just that there needs to be incentive to do so. Make it worth their while, and companies will recycle just about anything. But if they can only recycle at a loss, they will not do it. It is pretty easy to understand if you can grasp the difference between the private and public sectors.