We can define a linear economy as one in which products are created from raw material, produced, distributed, used, and then discarded. That can include recycling, which is a key component of the process. The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries says that 40% of the global manufacturing supply chain now depends on the collection and recovery of recycled materials.

In a circular economy, we move recycling from an end action back to displacing virgin materials. That means we use an ever greater percentage of what’s called post-consumer materials in our manufacturing.

Manufacturing starts with the design of the product. That design needs to take the entire life cycle of the product into account in order to support the circular economy concept. A product needs to be more durable, employ sustainable manufacturing practices, be repairable, and contain components that can be recovered to become a resource for the development of new products and services.

It turns out to be remarkably difficult to locate products that actually tell you how much of the product, or more often just the container, is post-consumer materials. My explorations around the house revealed mostly cleaning products that have the information posted on them. Cleaning products are themselves, of course, consumed, so only the bottle is of interest. Those were either Type 1 or Type 2, which are the most easily reused for new products of the same sort.

The most interesting find was an old tri-fold from 1987 for recycling in Brunswick that states it’s made from 100% recycled paper. Since it qualifies as high grade office paper, it is thoroughly recyclable again.

The other paper products are various kinds of tissues, which are not recyclable, but paper napkins or towels can easily be composted by the two companies that pick up in Brunswick, or in a backyard composter. They can be eliminated by using cloth products, instead of paper, but we don’t have room here to argue about the life cycle costs of cleaning the cloth, or repurposing it when the napkins wear out.

Whether they say so or not, any product that comes in a Type 1 or Type 2 plastic container, we know contains some percentage of post-consumer materials these days, and is also itself easily recycled. The bottles I found that are Type 1 or Type 2 plastic, and reported on their content, contained a minimum of 25% post-consumer material. That’s not much, and most bottles do not say on them what level of post-consumer material they contain. Type 4 plastic film appears to be readily recyclable, when properly collected, and can be turned into new plastic film or other products, but none tells us how much virgin material is added each time in the process.

My experience suggests that products with more post-consumer material used in their manufacture tend to be the better products for our use as well, so my take-away here is to watch for a higher percentage whenever we can, avoid plastics when we can, and think in terms of a circular use of the materials.

The Recycle Bin is a weekly column on what to recycle, what not to recycle, and why, in Brunswick. The public is encouraged to submit questions by email to [email protected] Harry Hopcroft is a member of the Brunswick Recycling and Sustainability Committee.

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