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  • Aaryan Doshi

Circularity and Recycling


Circularity and Recycling - image adobe firefly

If you have often wondered what happens to all the waste we generate and dump into garbage trucks, let me address that. There are three possible outcomes: recycling, incineration, and landfill.


While recycling may seem to be the most eco-friendly option, there are not-so-obvious challenges or situations where it might not be the best option. Let's take electronics or e-waste. One primary reason for recycling e-waste is to extract metals such as copper, silver, or palladium and recirculate them back into the economy. 


However, products are often dumped before their useful life is over, and the process of extracting useful materials such as metals can be hazardous or costly. Thus, even the EPA suggests thinking about donating electronics or keeping them in circulation as long as possible instead of rushing to recycle.


I always thought the world recycled as we do in the US - which is that we simply dump everything we want to recycle, such as plastic, paper, and metal, into the same recycling bin. The only expectation the US EPA has from us is the separation of "wet" garbage from "dry" recyclables. So now the onus is on the waste management company to sift and separate the different materials. While this approach makes it easier for the public to recycle, the recycling process is more complex, and often, the extracted material (such as metals) might be contaminated and thus less valuable than the raw material.

  

To address this, European countries like Germany expect the general public to separate their recyclable items into different categories such as paper, metal, compost, and waste. This process, referred to as "source separation," ensures the recyclable materials are cleanly separated at the source, resulting in simpler (and cheaper) recycling processes and also higher-quality extracted resources.


Clearly, the European model is cleaner and more effective from a circular economy point of view. The concern with this approach is that the perception of inconvenience and added effort may discourage people from recycling. 


References:

Electronics Donation and Recycling | US EPA. (2023, August 4). US EPA. https://www.epa.gov/recycle/electronics-donation-and-recycling


Contracting Best Practices: Source Separation Requirement or Preference | US EPA. (2024, April 19). US EPA. https://www.epa.gov/transforming-waste-tool/contracting-best-practices-source-separation-requirement-or-preference


Waste Separation and Recycling. (n.d.). https://handbookgermany.de/en/waste-separation


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