Recycling: 3 tough questions about a sacred cow

A commercial is playing in which a young mother grabs a bottle of water as she heads out for a jog. She waves goodbye to her family playing soccer on the front lawn. She later finds a recycling bin in which she tosses the empty plastic bottle.

We learn in the commercial that this plastic bottle is one of 14,000 that are converted into carpet fiber every day, which can return to the mother’s home to provide softness and warmth underfoot for years to come. End of happy recycling story, right? If only it were so simple.

This commercial offers the opportunity to ask some rather sacrilegious questions about recycling, environmentalism's favorite sacred cow. Recycling is often spoken of as an end in itself, a virtuous act that is inherently beneficial and even synonymous with environmentalism. But recycling is actually a means to an end.

So why do we recycle?

Recycling is held sacred because, if done right, it holds the promise of creating a circular economy where materials can be reused many times, displacing impacts of virgin materials, reducing impacts from end-of-life, and keeping these valuable technical nutrients in our system. At the same time, it can support the economy, provide jobs and give businesses a way to make products without damaging planetary life support systems.

Keeping these reasons and the commercial in mind, we pose three questions that can be used to assess whether a recycled material actually is beneficial to the environment and the community:

Reason 1: Recycled materials can displace the use of environmentally damaging sources of virgin raw materials from mines, oil wells, industrial agriculture, etc.

Question 1: Does using the recycled material reduce the use of virgin materials and reduce the life cycle environmental impact of producing the product?

At Interface, we know from firsthand experience that the answer to this is not always "yes." In the late 1990s, our first attempts to create a 100 percent recycled carpet tile backing from our old products actually produced a product with a larger environmental footprint due to the inefficiency of a three-part manufacturing process using energy intensive machinery.

However, life cycle assessment shows that the environmental footprint of PET (polyester) carpet yarn from drink bottles actually is smaller than carpet yarn from PET made entirely from oil and gas, and is substantially smaller than the footprint of carpet made with virgin nylon yarn.

So what's the problem? The happy recycling story from the commercial has survived the first question.

Plastic bottle image by Dan Kosmayer via Shutterstock.

Next page: On to the second question