Recycling Definitions: Theory and Practice

A key part of sustainability is recycling—that is, reduce, reuse, recycle. So when I think about recycling, it seems pretty straightforward to me. A good working definition of recycling can be found on It says: “to treat or process (used or waste materials) so as to make suitable for reuse: recycling paper to save trees.” But sometimes, actual practice is more complicated than theoretical definitions.

Item 1. Post Consumer vs. Post Industrial. I recently researched environmentally friendly insulation. I found out that the major (fiberglass) insulation makers have some percentage of recycled glass in their batt insulation. Take 2 big names in the field: Owens Corning and Johns Manville. As of Nov. 2008, Owens Corning says that 40% of the glass in their fiberglass insulation is recycled. Johns Manville says that 25% of the glass in their product is recycled. So 40% beats 25% pretty easily, correct? Maybe.

But then I find out that the Johns Manville is 20% post consumer and 5% post industrial, while the Owens Corning is 10% post consumer and 30% post industrial. Post consumer really means it comes from from a end-user application (examples—office supplies or a soda bottle) and thereby avoids a landfill. Post industrial means the waste from one industrial process goes to another manufacturing process in a different industry. The post consumer sounds environmentally better to me. The LEED green building standards think so also, since they essentially award double credit for post consumer vs post industrial. So Johns Manville gets 20+20+5 = 45 points, Owens Corning gets 10+10+30 = 50 points. Who “recycles” more glass in their insulation? (Both of these products have been certified for recycled content for building products/insulation by Scientific Certification Systems at

Item 2. The Great Recycling Recession. A friend of mine has a print shop (Homer Printing) in the Philadelphia area. He used to be able to sell his recyclable paper for $40/ton. Then he got a letter from his recycling contact that the price had fallen from $40 to somewhere near zero, but they would still take it. He has since gotten a letter saying he now has to pay $30/ton to have the recyclable paper taken away. It could be worse—he could pay somewhere around $65/ton to ship it to a landfill. This is a powerful reminder that it is only possible to reduce, reuse, and recycle if someone else wants the product(s) you want to recycle.

But life isn’t all bad—the napkin I got from Dunkin Donuts this morning is made from 100% recycled fiber. I think that means that no trees were cut down to create the fiber for the paper in the napkin—but there might be more to this than meets the eye.

Website used in this post:
LEED standards—New Buildings version 2.2


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