By Shelley Padnos
This opinion piece was originally published by The Detroit News.
Innovative, high-quality recycled materials are everywhere we look. From the rubber improving traction on our roads in winter, to the copper in hospital ventilators helping saving lives, to designer bags gifted on a special day, recycled materials are working hard behind the scenes and bringing joy in this season and every other.
It’s an exciting time to be involved in recycling. As part of a fourth-generation, family-owned recycling operation with more than 30 locations in Michigan and Indiana, I’ve always been keenly aware of the potential in recycled materials. When we were kids, notebooks with off-white pages and glass bottles stamped with a few cents’ value were the iconic representation of recycled materials. Just look at how far we’ve come!
Today, our industry is the source of a wide variety of sustainable materials, and new applications are introduced almost daily. Our work protects natural resources, reduces carbon emissions and builds more secure, sustainable and resilient supply chains. Every time recyclers put high-quality materials back into the production pipeline, we save a tree, reduce drilling for fossil fuels, or cut down on mining.
And, as demand for clean energy technologies increases, the demand for recycled materials, specifically rare minerals, will grow substantially. Battery storage, wind turbines and other advanced technologies require resources the U.S. too often purchases from overseas. Recycling promises to provide local access to critical inputs, improving national and economic security while adding to the more than 15,000 recycling jobs already putting food on the table across our state.
In these ways and more, recycling is a vital mission for America and the world. It’s strange that amidst so much inspiring progress and expanding need, some people are losing faith in recycling. Sadly, the “scorched Earth” narrative that has emerged in certain corners around the topic of recycling will only lead us toward a scorched Earth. If we continue to falsely convince consumers that recycling is fundamentally “broken,” we lose decades of hard-won momentum toward more careful, conscientious, and precise recycling efforts in our homes, businesses, and public spaces.
To be fair, there are challenges in recycling. Plastics come in thousands of formulas, each difficult to identify without expensive lab testing and many incompatible with the next. Manufacturers are often inconsistent with their labeling, leading to confused consumers inadvertently sorting things incorrectly. And unfortunately, recyclability doesn’t always come first in brands’ product design, so component materials can be difficult or even impossible to reclaim.
Are these issues frustrating? Of course. But rather than throw up our hands as some critics suggest we do, we, on the front lines of recycled materials, continue to search for and create solutions.
Right now, optical scanners, electronic sensors and artificial intelligence are being rapidly incorporated into recycling facilities across Michigan and the country to better sort materials so that we can recycle more items, more efficiently.
Answers are not only technical, but also personal. We enjoy greater collaboration with manufacturers eager to understand the full lifecycle of the materials they use and how they can enhance sustainability.
We also have great partners in our local communities dedicated to improving recycling programs in ways that positively impact material reclamation success. And we have Michiganians on our side, rinsing milk jugs, trading in used electronics and dutifully sorting aluminum, glass and cardboard so that the materials can deliver value again as a new product for someone else.
Let me assure you that no matter what a handful of naysayers may claim, recycling isn’t broken. It’s thriving —finding solutions, enhancing economic prosperity and empowering us all to become better environmental stewards.
Shelley Padnos is chair of the executive committee at Padnos. She grew up in the recycled materials industry in a fourth-generation family-owned business.
By Shelley Padnos This opinion piece was originally published by The Detroit News. Innovative, high-quality...