JeffCO H20: Recycle, downcycle, upcycle, ecycle, precycle . . . What’s it all mean???

According to the EPA, recycling is the process of collecting and processing materials which otherwise would be thrown away as trash and turning them into new products, thereby conserving raw materials, lowering energy consumption, curtailing littering, and reducing impact on landfills. 

Recycling is not a 20th century idea.  The first documented recycling program began in 1031 when Japan required that documents and other used paper be recycled.  Various forms of recycling came and went over the ensuing centuries, but it wasn’t until the all-aluminum beverage can was introduced in the late 1950s that recycling gained traction in America.  Today, many US communities advocate and provide recycling opportunities for residents.

530325_10150945940686155_1005889778_nPinson’s community recycling trailer located at City Hall

So how are we doing?  At 4.6 pounds of trash per day for every American, we generate much more trash than we recycle.  The EPA estimates that while 75% of America’s trash is recyclable, we only recycle about 30%.  So it makes sense that our country’s biggest export is . . .  trash!  China, our biggest customer, buys the material we throw away, reprocesses it, and sells it back to US manufacturers.  And then we buy new stuff, throw it away, sell our trash to China . . . you get the idea.

While there are many domestic companies which process recycled materials, companies in countries with low labor costs and lax environmental laws have been the major producers of cheap recycled plastic resin.  But China recently passed ‘Green Fence’ restrictions which prohibit its import of plastics #3 – #7.  This could mean that here in the US, many more plastics will be headed for landfills.

When we do recycle, are these recycled materials used to make more of the same products?  The answer is . . . it depends.

According to the Container Recycling Institute, US consumers use 70 million plastic water bottles per day; 60 million of these are discarded as trash. The International Bottled Water Association reports that manufacturers currently are using just 50% recycled plastic in their containers.


Some materials are downcycled to produce entirely different products with less value and recycling potential than the original product.  Many plastics and some paper fall into this category.  Some materials are upcycled to make products with more value than the original product such as countertops made from glass containers and fabrics made from plastic bottles.


upcycled glass counter tops

Ecycling recovers usable materials from discarded electronics such as plastic, metal and wire, and valuable elements such as gold, silver, palladium, and copper which all can be reprocessed for use in new electronic components.  Ecycling also properly handles toxic materials found in electronic devices such as lead, cadmium, mercury and arsenic which can leach from landfills and pollute groundwater.  According to the Electronic TakeBack Coalition, US consumers discarded 3.4 million tons of electronics in 2011 but recycled less than 25%.


It’s even possible to reduce the need for recycling by choosing products which either can be reused or decrease the amount of waste generated. Precycling is making those choices which have some degree of sustainability or upfront waste reduction such as purchasing reusable rather than single use or disposable products; buying food, cleaning products, and other consumables in bulk to reduce packaging waste; or choosing items that can be repaired or refurbished rather than discarded.

Reducing the amount of waste we generate means less litter, trash and hazardous materials carried by rain into waterways.  Less energy used for manufacturing and transportation means less particulate air pollution deposited in surface waterways.  Putting a little effort into choosing wisely, reducing waste, reusing materials, recycling whenever possible, and conserving natural resources can have a big impact on improving our future on planet earth.

Speaking of Recycling . . .

Just in Time for the HolidaysIt makes sense to de-clutter your living space before the coming weeks filled with family gatherings and house guests. Consider some alternatives for getting rid of unwanted items that are not in good enough shape for donation. There may be a better choice for them than the landfill!  Check out the Alabama Environmental Center’s (AEC) Recycle Alabama website for the lowdown on most things recyclable.  The site makes it easy to find out what AEC accepts, any material-specific guidelines, and other vendors which accept these materials.  AEC is one of the few collection sites in Alabama that accepts glass containers and textiles (yep, even your old t-shirts, undies and shoes).

Tree Recycling – When the ornaments come off, a live Christmas tree is just some mulch waiting to happen.  Find a tree recycling location near you.

Recycling Trailers Recycling just got closer to home with drop off trailers placed in Jefferson County locations which do not have access to other recycling opportunities.  Find a recycling trailer near you.


Lyn DiClemente
Jefferson County Department of Storm Water Management
B-210 Jefferson County Courthouse Annex
716 Richard Arrington Jr. Blvd. North
Birmingham, AL  35203

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