Jeremy O’Brien on why some items can be recycled, but not others

Recycling expert Jeremy O’Brien responds to a student’s question about why some materials can be recycled and others can not.

Sofia: My name is Sofia Andrade and my question is, why can certain items be recycled, and others can’t?

EarthSky asked Jeremy O’Brien, director of Applied Research at the Solid Waste Association of North America. He said ideally, everything could be recycled.

Jeremy O’Brien: Theoretically, you could recycle almost any material. There are some materials that have been so changed in their manufacturing, that it’s very difficult to recycle.

Food cans and soda cans are easy to recycle. But rubber car tires, which are chemically processed as they’re made, are nearly impossible to recycle into new rubber products. Computers can be recycled, but they are made of so many different metals and plastics, they are hard to disassemble. A big part of whether something actually gets recycled has to do with cost.

Jeremy O’Brien: So if you can recycle a material for less than the cost of using a new material, then it would be considered recyclable.

If a material is difficult to recycle, it will be more expensive than new materials, and people won’t want to use it. O’Brien added that awareness of the environmental benefits of recycling could increase the number of different items recycled.

It may be cheaper to print a book on recycled paper than to log new trees. But if trees become cheaper than recycled paper, that book might be printed on new paper.

Our thanks to the Monsanto Fund, bridging the gap between people and their resources.

Our thanks to:
Jeremy O’Brien
Director of Applied Research
SWANA
Silver Spring, Maryland

Lindsay Patterson