Ingenuity and Simplicity: The Keys to Successful Recycling

You could be forgiven for believing that recycling doesn’t work. After all, one municipal recycling program after another has shut down in recent years. But decades of failure are not due to recycling being impossible. Successful recycling requires ingenuity and simplicity. That is where we are failing.

The proof that recycling can work is in the pudding, so to speak. Take Seraphim Plastics. The Tennessee company buys scrap plastic from industrial customers. They process the scrap and sell the resulting material to manufacturers. Seraphim is heavily invested in PET and PVC recycling, among other types of plastics.

What makes them so successful? Ingenuity and simplicity. Like many other companies in their industry, they figured out a simple and fundamental process by which they can recycle certain types of plastics and turn them into profit.

Keep It Simple, Man

The foundation of Seraphim’s ingenious strategy is simplicity. By refusing to complicate things, the company’s ability to make a profit is not hindered by much. They can continue to buy and sell scrap plastic as long as the demand remains. And right now, that demand doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.

By contrast, your typical municipal recycling program is way too complicated. We try to make it easy for consumers by giving them curbside bins for their plastic, paper, and glass. But the same system complicates matters for waste haulers and recyclers.

The contents of curbside bins need to be sorted, either at the truck or the plant. Items that can be recycled have to be further sorted and cleaned. Everything else gets discarded. The recyclables are then sold to other companies that transform them into usable raw materials. By the time those materials get to manufacturers, the price is too high. Manufacturers can buy virgin materials cheaper.

Municipal programs could work if they were simpler. First, eliminate the need to sort and clean by requiring consumers to do it themselves. Next, eliminate the trash hauler and let recyclers collect materials themselves. You eliminate unnecessary complexity and keep the price of recycled materials on par with virgin materials.

Not Just Consumer Plastics

Tapping into ingenuity and simplicity makes it possible to recycle all sorts of things. We do not have to limit ourselves to consumer plastics. For example, consider cigarette butts. They are actually quite recyclable as long as they are kept separate.

A nonprofit organization in Wilmington, NC does just that. Keep New Hanover Beautiful provides free cigarette butt receptacles to any organization that wants them in New Hanover County. They are the same receptacles municipalities and private sector businesses install on their properties. What’s the difference?

While the cigarette butts collected by those other receptacles eventually end up in a landfill, the ones collected by Keep New Hanover Beautiful are sent to a recycler in New Jersey. The paper and remaining tobacco are separated and turned into compost. Filters are sent through a multi-step process to reduce them to a material that can be added to wood for manufacturing purposes.

To demonstrate just how successful cigarette butt manufacturing is, Keep New Hanover Beautiful’s recycling partners recently sent them a 700-pound picnic table made from materials including their recycled cigarette butts. Everyone in the county now gets to see the fruits of their efforts first-hand.

Seraphim Plastics and Keep New Haven Beautiful have demonstrated that recycling can work. It just takes a little ingenuity and the willingness to keep things simple. Come up with an ingenious idea, do not complicate it, and you have the foundation for recycling success. The proof is there for all to see.

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