Commercial Recycling: The Problems and Potential Solutions

Can We Fix Commercial Recycling?

By Jane Marsh

While a household might fill a trash can with recycling, a business could fill a dumpster. Commercial recycling can be a very involved process, as all types of companies have different recycling needs. International bans and changing policies also make it challenging. While it’s tedious, it’s also necessary to protect the environment. There’s a lot that needs improvement, but the solution is close.

Do Businesses Understand Recycling?

Office buildings, restaurants and stores produce varying commercial wastes since it’s created by doing business. Commercial recycling focuses on how enterprises can turn their unusual waste into something new. Unlike regular people, they can recycle many things besides your usual cardboard box or glass bottle.

It’s challenging to figure out what can be recycled. Many plastics can’t be recycled — even though many people assume they can — and many items they send to recycling facilities might not get recycled. More businesses need to educate themselves on what is recyclable. A company should only send something to a recycling center if the facility can recycle it. Organizations can ensure this as long as they properly categorize and check their recycling before sending it away.

Commercial Recycling: Crowds at an iron fence, some of which has been sawn off at the concrete base, pebbles and weeds vising inside
Remnants of iron fence bars in York Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate. Such public property fences were sawed for the iron and recycled during World War II.
Credit: Etan J. Tal – Own work

What Happens to Commercial Recycling?

Businesses don’t know what to do with their waste, so they send it to landfills. Alternatively, they send it to a recycling center. Since many things can’t be recycled there, they get sent to landfills. While much commercial recycling ends up in landfills, new regulations and government assistance will prevent that.

What Are the Obstacles to Recycling?

Countries will often send their recycling to other places. However, the main ones taking those imports are no longer accepting anything. This leaves a lot of countries to figure out what to do with their recycling since many don’t have systems to fall back on.

In 2018, China banned imports of recyclable material. After the ban, China’s imports went from 600,000 tons a month to only 30,000. They gave the responsibility of recycling back to the countries where the waste was coming from. That was an obstacle for the United States since it accounted for the majority — 16.5% — of the total imports. The government relied on shipping recyclable materials to others, but the ban put a stop to that.

Sending waste away is also an expensive practice — and trash is not guaranteed to be recycled. The U.S. sent things that were supposed to be, but up to 70% of exported waste wasn’t recycled because it didn’t meet standards.

When countries change their recycling policies, it affects commercial businesses. Sending waste away is fine until a government decides to stop taking it — then, companies are left wondering where to put their trash.

Why Are Things Not Recycled?

Much commercial recycling ends up in landfills because businesses either aren’t aware of how to properly recycle or don’t want to take responsibility for recycling. On top of this, it can be cheaper to buy new rather than recycled material. Because of this, organizations are wary of recycling. Humans created 9.2 billion tons of plastic over the course of decades and only 2.2 billion tons were recycled.

In addition, countries are not working with businesses to work towards a greener future. India, for example, imposed a plastic ban in July 2022 after reaching 14 million tons of annual plastic use. While businesses have unique opportunities to recycle, they’re not taking advantage. Some are even fighting efforts to reduce waste. Indian enterprises lobbied against the ban because they felt it was unfair that they had no warning. They would have been more receptive if the government had worked with them instead of quickly passing the ban.

Commercial waste is often not recycled because companies don’t get proper support. For example, a demolition business ends up with wood, concrete and metal after demolishing a house. It’s all technically recyclable, but it’s tough to find somewhere to recycle it even if they knew that.

Similarly, a business might face materials with specific disposal steps, like hazardous or damaged waste. They might not know where to recycle such stuff. Businesses need structures to follow and some help.

How Does Commercial Recycling Need to Change?

The solution for fixing commercial recycling is to be involved and create working recycling programs. Companies can change how they do business to be compatible with recycling. Beyond that, countries should implement new local programs, national regulations and international communication.

Businesses should be informed of the benefits of recycling and how to recycle. Since many of them deal with unusual materials, it helps to make them aware of what is recyclable. The United States can do this by improving communication between industries that produce new materials. If waste is reduced initially, there will be less of it going to landfills.

Focusing on a stronger recycling system will benefit businesses:

  • Save resources: Reusing things someone else already manufactured keeps resources from being used up or depleted.
  • Save time: Making things easier to recycle and reuse is more efficient. Less time is spent collecting materials or producing new goods.
  • Save money: Keeping recycling local instead of shipping waste out of the country saves money.
  • Save the planet: A sustainable recycling system will reduce pollution, reduce waste in landfills and help the environment.

A robust recycling system encourages businesses to reuse or recycle their products and waste, giving them a sustainable way to operate. It will be easier for commercial organizations to recycle if they receive a simple way to recycle their materials. Plus, they’ll be more motivated to recycle when it’s profitable and easy.

They’ll have an easier time figuring out recycling if structures are in place. Regulations that affect the creation of new and recycled material will give businesses a straightforward process to follow.

Is Involvement the Solution?

The ban preventing countries from sending materials away provides a unique opportunity for governments — instead of shipping waste out of the country, they can rely on their own recycling system. It’s possible to recycle more in your own country. For example, Germany recycles around 67% of its waste because international and local policies motivate businesses to recycle. In addition, the government informs companies of precisely what can be recycled and how to do it.

The communication starts with the businesses and local governments, and moves up the chain until it gets international. Many countries focus on banning plastics or recycling imports, but that’s giving responsibility away. Instead of banning things, governments and businesses should work together to organize a working system.

What Is Being Done?

There are efforts to fix commercial recycling. Since the issue lies with businesses needing to be informed and supported with regulation, governments are stepping in. If enterprises have clear outlines to follow, they’ll have an easier time dealing with waste. A simple process ensures every industry can participate.

As of 2019, 187 countries addressed the issue of sending recyclables to other countries. These meetings resulted in a treaty called the Basel Convention. It will begin regulating shipments of recyclables in 2021 by acting as a checklist for countries that want to send their recycling to others.

Also, there are further negotiations concerning commercial recycling. In May 2023, governments will discuss a legally binding solution for commercial waste. Laws and rules will protect businesses because governments must build a support network to help with their recycling needs.

Commercial Recycling Can Be Saved

There are many benefits to commercial recycling for businesses and countries. Businesses involved in recycling programs will likely save more time and resources. Plus, the environment will recover. If companies are informed and governments create regulations, recycling becomes much more accessible. It might require much effort, but the world can work together to create a better commercial recycling system.