Post-Industrial Recycling – jbs

J.B. Sivanich

In a phone conversation with a certain company today (whose website lauds the environmental benefits of all the recycled material they use in making their products), I was told, “We only accept post-industrial glass. Post-consumer glass is too contaminated for use in our product.” Though their website markets their product as “an effort to be environmentally conscious” and “[utilizing] 100% recycled glass products,” the glass they incorporate into their product most likely has never left the factory production stream. Is this really recycling?

In all my research about the merits of recycling, this is the one thing has come to most frustrate me; this notion of incorporating refuse product that has never left the factory (because of defects, or quality control, or whatever) into new product and marketing it as “recycling” is not only a misnomer but blatant green washing.

Melting down defective glass bottles to make new glass is not recycling; it’s something manufacturers have always done because it’s cost effective to use defective-but still pure-materials in making new product instead of mining new raw materials. The same goes for paper: defective rolls of paper that are ground up into pulp to make new paper is the economic action for a paper plant to take, instead of putting the defective roll into the waste stream and paying for new wood or fiber materials to feed the pulper.

These processes are not new; they’ve been around as long as manufacturing has been. However, the sudden need to market products whose manufacturing processes had not changed at all as “containing recycled content” began with the rise of “reduce, reuse, and recycle” in the early-1990s. Unfortunately, the true meaning of recycling – that centering around the re-using of post-consumer materials – was somehow lost to many manufacturers who began labeling their products, which still incorporated the same amount of post-industrial refuse, as “recycled.”

With the recent rise of green and sustainable thinking – called the “Green Wave” by Green to Gold authors Daniel Esty and Andrew Winston – the temptation to green wash consumer products has grown even greater. “Green washing” refers to a companies attempt to market a product as “green” or “environmentally-friendly” when it may only be only marginally so, or may only stereotypically agree with the ideas of environmental stewardship and sustainability. The marketing of any product as “natural,” “organic,” “recycled,” or “green” is legal as long as the product contains at least some amount of the marketed defined by the company making the product.

Hmmmm..This creates quiet the Catch 22 for those of use trying to make sustainable purchases. However, watch for certification labels, such as “USDA Certified Organic” or “Sustainable Forestry Initiative” or “SmartWood” or even “Contains 50% post-consumer recycled content.” These labels may not insure 100% organic materials, or 100% recycled content, but they at least have legal definitions by which manufacturers must comply.

Too bad they just don’t have one for recycled glass yet.