Keeping Our Recycling Quality

Early in my professional career I stumbled into working closely with quality assurance. Within manufacturing this is one of, if not the most, important departments. Quality Departments ensure that the items being produced are acceptable. However, this isn’t the same quality that you or I might think of. This isn’t premium products like Gucci or Prada, quality departments are all about consistency.

There is variation in everything in life; whether that be the temperature throughout the day or what time you arrive at work each morning. Nothing is perfectly the same every time. The job of quality departments is to reduce that variation as much as possible. So when you look at companies like McDonald’s for example, they have excellent quality because no matter what McDonald’s you go to, all around the world, they all seem to taste exactly the same. McDonalds might not have a reputation for having “premium” products, but I do believe they have excellent quality.

You may be asking yourself, “what does this have to do with recycling?” Well, it actually has everything to do with our recycling. The recycling efforts you and I make are only as successful as the systems that actually collect, process, and redistribute our recycling. If our recycling systems are ineffective then all the hard work we put into making sure our waste ends up in the appropriate bin is futile. So I want to walk through how I would normally apply a quality system to a process and why its so challenging for recycling facilities.

Photo by zibik on Unsplash

The way quality has always been taught to be is going to the very start. If I have a multi-step process, each step adds additional value to whatever you are producing. Between the labor costs and any material costs, whatever you are producing gets more expensive after each step in the process. Because of this, when we are asking ourselves “where do I start?” with our attempts to improve the consistency and thus quality of our products, we want to go back to the beginning of the process.

For most production operations, this means starting with the raw materials being purchased. After all, you can’t make good quality if you start with crummy materials. This is where I have been reflecting considerably in regards to our recycling.

Our recycling facilities are at the mercy of the work we do up front to collect our recyclables correctly. Their raw materials are defined by everything that shows up to their dock doors and they have no legitimate say in the matter. Between the various products that brand owners decide to make and our (often) poor recycling, we end up with reduced efficiencies and lower valued outputs at these facilities.

So what can we do to correct this? Honestly, I don’t know. We have thousands of brands producing products with only minimal consideration of the end of life. Plus we have millions of people producing waste with very little knowledge on what does and doesn’t belong in the recycling bin. It’s amazing this system has worked for as long as it has, but something has to change.

When it comes to how to solve this, I seem to see one of two responses. Either people put the blame entirely on brand owners, saying they need to provide better alternatives (I’m still unsure of what alternatives brand owners are expected to suddenly use). The second response is that consumers are responsible for behaving sustainably and disposing of everything correctly.

For me, it’s both. We all need to be working together to create a consistent waste stream. This isn’t going to be an easy road, but we need to work together to help our recycling facilities be more successful. They need consistent supply of raw materials in order to make their outputs more valuable and thus the entire recycling process more valuable!

But what do you think? How do you think we can make our recycling process more successful? Is there something you think I’m overlooking? Let me know in the comments!

Author: Miles Quinn

Miles has been in the packaging field for over 5 years after studying packaging science at Clemson University. He moved to Reno, NV after graduating and has fallen in love with the area. He has a passion for environmentalism and is hoping to make an impact both locally and on a large scale

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