Ever wonder how recycling works? Here's a glimpse behind the scenes at cool tech and big money.

Dang, that's a lot of money we could save.

Each year, the U.S. tosses $11.4 billion worth of recyclable containers and packaging.

Just flinging bills into the air...


And, believe it or not, the recycling rate in the U.S. has lurched along at about 34% for two decades, far lower than other industrialized countries.

That's serious money down the drain. Take aluminum cans. Making cans from recycled aluminum requires 95% less energy and creates 90% less greenhouse-gas emissions than virgin aluminum, yet more than 40 billion cans hit America's landfills every year. 40 billion.

Plastic is a particularly gnarly issue. We not only emit greenhouse gases when we create the stuff, but the environmental impacts of plastic waste (and we often toss plastic items out after only a single use) are gut-wrenching.

We've created an archipelago of plastic in the middle of the Pacific. Talking globally, plastic pollution in the oceans costs at least $13 billion a year. This is just not nice.

So why don't we do a better job of recycling?

Every recycled material (aluminum, plastic, glass, etc.) has its own story, but here's the gist:

  • A lot of U.S. plastic has been recycled in China. We get tons of fun consumer stuff from China in big shipping containers. Rather than ship the containers back empty, we've been filling them up with recyclables and sending them to China where the recyclables are sorted and recycled into more fun consumer stuff. This is changing though, since — surprise! — they don't want our smelly, gooey, dangerous recycla-mess anymore.
  • Most of our recycling plants are outdated and can't handle the mix of all the different materials we send them.
  • Our recycling system is all over the place. City recycling plants operate very differently from each other making sourcing recycled materials difficult for any company wanting to use a recycled material.
  • We don't charge high enough landfill fees. Towns and cities can still “afford" to throw stuff away.
  • 25% of us don't even have curbside recycling at all. And that's just plain sad. :(
  • Even the green-blooded enviros among us still throw recyclables away. When the recycling container isn't convenient, we use the trash.

There's a bright spot in this garbage heap of sad news.

Recycling technology has improved, in part thanks to a secret weapon called optical sorting, which uses cameras and lasers to separate out which things are not like the others. You know, like separating frogs from green beans headed for the supermarket.

I'm not kidding, this is a real example.

More relevant to recycling, we are using optical sorting to separate different types of plastic and different colors of glass. So a stream of multicolored glass bits...


...can be mechanically sorted to be all of the same color...

...bottle to bottle. Has a nice ring. Here's how that works:


Let's keep pushing for more and better recycling. And any time you're tempted to use the trash can — think money!

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Photo by Hunters Race on Unsplash

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