The recycling symbol is actually kind of deceptive. The three arrows in a circle implies that by recycling, we are enabling the material to live forever in our little product ecosystems. Yet there's lots of stuff that can only be recycled once, which is better than nothing but worse than great.
Take plastics, for instance:
Chandrasekhar Narayan, who leads I.B.M.'s science and technology team at its Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif., said the presence of metal catalysts in plastics means that they often can only be recycled once before ending up in a landfill.
"When you try to take a product and recycle it, the metal in the polymer continues to degrade the polymer so it gets increasingly less strong," said Mr. Narayan.
However, Mr. Narayan, along with his IBM colleagues and researchers at Stanford University, have discovered a workaround to extend the life of plastics:
"If you use organic reactants, you can make certain types of new polymers that are quite different and have other properties plastics don't have."
That could give new life to the 13 billion plastic bottles that are thrown away each year in the United States.
...Organic catalysts could create a new class of biodegradable plastics to replace those that are difficult to recycle, such as polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, used in a variety of consumer products, including plastic beverage bottles.