This distinction comes up in regards to single stream recycling when faced with two items of the same material type, but only one of which is acceptable in a particular program. Everything in the world can be recycled, but not all materials have a process in place to collect, remake into new materials or has a market to purchase once sorted. Here are a few examples of how this plays out.
HDPE (Plastic #2)- A popular plastic used in milk jugs, detergent bottles, 3-5 gallon buckets and other large rigid plastics. The City can accept milk jugs, detergent bottles and clean buckets up to 3 gallons, but above that size they are no longer “recoverable”. The equipment is set up to sort materials of certain sizes, shapes and material types. An expansion of HDPE recycling programming has been developed in other municipalities, but the City of Pittsburgh has not worked with its vendor to develop a bulky rigid program. The giant HDPE plastic turtle shaped sandbox is recyclable, but not recoverable in this particular system.
LDPE (Plastic #4)- While there is consumer packaging labeled #4 that is both recyclable and recoverable, most of it is what is called “film plastic” or otherwise known as bags and overwrap. Film plastic is not truly recyclable (see discussion on Downcycling) and there are very few “#4” plastic containers in consumer packaging that meet the sorting requirements that would make them truly recoverable, but up until recently it was on the list of accepted materials because it’s was easier to say the City accepts plastics #1-5 rather than 1,2 & 5.
Metal (Ferrous)- Cans! Bimetal cans sometimes known as tin cans or just simply steel cans are easy to pull from the mix of single streams recyclables with a magnet regardless of the shape that they are in (preferably empty, of course). So why can’t residents in the City of Pittsburgh put scrap metal in the recycling bin (old pans, rusty mailbox, etc)? Because of the sorting equipment and process. There are programs at different municipalities that take scrap metal curbside of certain types, but again, the City has not worked with its vendor to expand this type of collection.
Reworking processes for collection and sorting requires leadership, investment and communication. Not everything should be targeted for recycling, but every item should have a plan associated with it that helps to increase its recovery, decrease its usage or increase its reuse.