Recycling is one of those words that remind us of the famously used phrase from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, which he used to describe his threshold test for obscenity. “I know it when I see it,” Stewart wrote in 1964.

In general we all think we know what recycling is. But, these days, the terms “recycling,” “recycled content” and “recyclable” are tossed around frequently and often interchangeably.

We’d like to begin this discussion about recycling with the September 2014 policy position adopted by the National Recycling Coalition. The NRC used the following straightforward definition: “Recycling is a series of activities by which material that has reached the end of its current use is processed into material utilized in the production of new products.”

In explaining the definition, the NRC stated the following: “It is critically important that we adopt and promote a single, simple definition of recycling if we are to continue to improve recycling in this country. Preserving the quality of recyclable materials – from collection through production into new products – will ultimately expand both the supply and the demand for recyclable supplies for the world’s manufacturing industries. We can begin to help this process by using a universally agreed upon definition of recycling.”

Prior to this statement, the only “official” definition of recycling came in a 1997 article from the Environmental Protection Agency that first appeared in the print edition of Resource Recycling.

The definitions put forth by EPA and NRC are closely aligned, but they don’t tell the whole story. We are finding that communities are considering relatively new approaches to the collection of recyclable materials. This is understandable given budget constraints. Sadly, some of the alternative collection methods often result in material that doesn’t meet the standards described above and probably wouldn’t meet Justice Stewart’s definition either.

The NRC believes that mixing recyclable materials with garbage during collection reduces the flow of high-quality materials needed to transform recyclable materials into recycled materials.

The NRC further affirms that the definition of recycling excludes the use of recyclable materials as a fuel substitute; for energy production; or alternative landfill daily cover. That doesn’t necessarily mean that there is anything wrong with those activities, but they are simply not recycling and shouldn’t be characterized as such.

The NRC recommends that communities adopt collection methods that improve and increase the quality and marketability of recyclable materials because, in addition to bringing environmental benefits, clean recyclables can provide a significant revenue stream to a range of stakeholders. Shared market value through higher quality feedstock can help offset the costs of recycling collection and processing, helping minimize the costs and increase the benefits of recycling over disposal methods.

Members of the public understand recycling is one of the things that they can do to help the environment and mitigate climate change and they want to keep doing it. The National Recycling Coalition and its affiliates want to work with communities to develop recycling programs that result in the best quality recyclable materials possible.

The National Recycling Coalition (NRC) Policy Committee includes the following individuals: Stephen Bantillo, co-chair; Fran McPoland, co-chair; George Dreckmann; and John Frederick.


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