Recycling Toward a Better Economy
Waste will always be seen as waste—until it is put in a different perspective.
Most consumer products are seen as single-use and then trashed. What many people don’t realize is some of these products have the potential to be infinitely more valuable. When products made of glass, metal, paper, or plastic are recycled, what was initially single-use value is increased. The more these products are recycled and reused, the more value is put back into the economy. This contributes to a circular economy, where energy, resources, and money are conserved in the manufacturing of these everyday products.
Learn about the recyclability and value of common single-use consumer products.
Glass is 100% and infinitely recyclable, meaning most glass products can be continuously recycled with very little loss of material throughout the recycling process. New, or virgin, glass is made from a combination of sand, soda ash, limestone, and feldspar – all natural resources that are limited and impact the environment to collect. Every ton of used glass that is recycled saves over one ton of these resources, as well as saving electricity, oil, and energy needed for manufacturing. For manufacturers, using recycled glass instead of making virgin glass lowers the energy and water required to make glass products and extends the life of furnaces and other equipment.
Most consumer-recycled glass is glass bottles or jars. When consumer glass is contaminated or unable to be made into new container glass products, there are other ways to reuse the glass in beneficial ways. Glass that cannot be made into new containers can be recycled into tile, filtration systems, concrete mixes, or even used for sandblasting in other manufacturing processes.
Similar to glass, both aluminum and steel are completely recyclable. Aluminum and steel, which are used in beverage and food cans, respectively, maintain their original integrity and do not degrade when recycled. Because of its high recyclability, about 75% of all aluminum ever produced is still in circulation today, whether as new aluminum cans or as car or building materials.
The average aluminum can produced today contains about 73% recycled aluminum. Steel cans contain an average of 35% recycled steel. Beyond reducing the need for raw materials, recycling these metals reduces the energy requirements and greenhouse gas emissions during can manufacturing.
Paper products often have the highest recycling rate compared to other products, with paper recycling exceeding 63% every year since 2009. According to the American Forest and Paper Association, over 41% of recycled paper in 2021 was made into containerboard, the material used to make cardboard boxes. Recycled paper is also made into boxboard (i.e. cereal boxes), tissue products, or newspaper and other forms of paper.
There are limits to paper recycling. Recycled paper can only be reused 5 to 7 times before it becomes too degraded. Many coated paper products or paper that is soiled cannot be recycled in the first place. Even though paper is often easily compostable or biodegradable and will break down easily in a landfill, recycling is still beneficial because it increases the lifetime value of the paper and reduces the need for trees to be harvested to make new paper.
All plastic products with a recycling mark – a triangle of arrows, usually with a number in the middle – are recyclable. However, not all plastics are made equal, and many of those types of plastic are very difficult to recycle. Most water and soda bottles are made from plastic #1 (PET), which is the most recyclable of all plastics. Like paper, plastic is not infinitely recyclable. The fibers that form plastic products degrade each time they are re-melted for recycling. But with advances in molecular technology, PET is reaching near 100% recyclability.
When plastic ends up in the environment, it can have negative impacts on waterways, agriculture, wildlife, recreation, and more. Increasing plastic recycling rates and recyclability not only reduces these negative impacts, but also reduces the need for raw materials, such as oil, therefore improving the sustainability of plastic products.
Recycling is Just One Step
No matter the technologies or infrastructure in place, the most important step in the recycling process is people – like you – properly recycling as many recyclable items as possible. Whether it’s through household pick-up services or by taking recycling to a drop-off center, the process begins with individual consumers.
When we do our part as consumers, the infrastructure will have to improve to keep up.
The Tennessee CLEAN Act is here to help spur the infrastructure improvements in Tennessee. Tennessee CLEAN will set up a commission of community members dedicated to evaluating Tennessee’s current litter and recycling infrastructure and determining solutions to meet the goals outlined in the bill.
Rallying support behind the Tennessee CLEAN Act is an additional way for Tennesseans to do their part in resolving Tennessee’s litter problem and improving the circularity of the state’s economy. As more people sign the Tennessee CLEAN petition, it serves as further proof to Tennessee legislators that Tennesseans care about the litter problem in our state and believe Tennessee CLEAN is the right way to find solutions.