How Small Recyclables Have A Big Impact

When it comes to recycling, the small stuff adds up—literally. So how do we tackle the issue of “small recyclables” in our current system?

We’re all pretty familiar with the standard recyclables—bottles, cardboard, cans, etc. But what about those tinier items that don’t really fit in with the mold? 

What are “small recyclables”?

Cosmetics. Miniature alcohol bottles. Pharmaceutical bottles. Lids, caps, and everything in between. 

Many people aren’t sure if those items are even recyclable. (And in some areas, they may not be!) Either the caps get left on and muddy up the batch, or they’re removed early on—and that comes with its own problems. 

See, items less than two inches tend to fall through the cracks when it comes to recycling. These are called “small-format” recyclables, and they’re notoriously hard to capture in curbside recycling streams. 

How much of our current stream is small recyclable items?

In terms of weight, up to 20% of plastic packaging is composed of these small-format recyclables. If you go by the number of items, though, it’s estimated that nearly 40% of plastic packaging could be these small items. 

If you can capture them, then there’s a lot of value in that for processing, but there’s the rub: these items are so small that current processing tends to miss them. 

A lot of people tend to put those small recyclables in the trash, but capturing these items would help plug the holes in our current “reduce, reuse, recycle” system. 

How can we better capture small recyclables? 

So how do we actually catch these items that tend to fall through the cracks? Here are just a few that solid waste managers can help capture small recyclables. 

Education

People can help minimize the amount of small recyclable loss through a small change in their behavior, so education is a huge part of making that happen. A great example of this is the recent “caps-on” messaging that encourages consumers to keep their bottle caps screwed on tightly before recycling, since detached caps tend to get lost during collection. 

If that sounds odd to you, you’re not alone—many people have actually been taught the opposite (especially if the caps themselves were not recyclable, but the bottle portion was). Recyclers have had to re-educate their customers, but the message is catching on. Campaigns from organizations such as the Association of Plastic Recycling have emphasized that while these caps have had to be removed in the past, our technology has improved to help make processing them together not only possible, but preferable. 

Technology

While the current recycling stream struggles to capture these small recyclables, there’s some hope that future technological advances will help. This is especially pertinent as brands are pushing to reduce the amount of waste from their packaging, which indicates that packaging will get smaller as time goes on. 

One such technology is under work already with the Sustainability Consortium and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The MIT team developed a “cyclone-like” separation tool that worked as a secondary screening measure to remove the small-format plastics that wound up in the glass stream. The lighter plastics would be suspended in blowing air that exited via a side outlet, while the heavier glass pieces would fall through the bottom. The result would be two purer streams that would then be primed for recovery. 

Reduce Production

In addition to recovering these small recyclables at the end of their life cycle, there should also be a push to reduce their original production in the first place. Ideally, manufacturers should design their packaging (and in some cases, the products themselves) to be as easy as possible to recycle, i.e. reducing the amount of small, hard-to-recycle pieces.  

That’s the idea behind “Extended Producer Responsibility”, which is an approach where producers take responsibility for the end-of-life of their products. If the smaller items cannot be completely designed out, then manufacturers could offer collection boxes or other easy-to-access checkpoints where consumers could separate and drop-off these smaller items away from other collection streams. 

Ready for more?

If there’s anything we can learn from small recyclables, it’s that even small efforts can make a huge difference.  And now it’s your turn!

Want to make a real impact in your community’s sustainable materials management efforts? Get SWEEP certified and become a leader in the field. Comment below, email info@sweepstandard.org, or head to certification page for more info.

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