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Recycling Is Not the Same Process as Reverse Logistics

Recycling Is Not the Same Process as Reverse Logistics

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By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management, American Public University

Recycle is a term we all think we know about. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes the term as “to process (something, such as liquid body waste, glass, or cans) in order to regain material for human use.”

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Liquid waste includes liquid body waste, wastewater, fats, oils, grease, used oil, gases, sludge and hazardous household liquids. We don’t normally concern ourselves with these items, but someone does for the benefit of the environment and population.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) defines these products in more detail. But the DEQ lists only paper and metal as a group. Plastics and glass are lumped in with other items. DEQ defines paper as newspapers, corrugated cardboard, Kraft paper products, and high-grade office paper among others. Metal is ferrous scrap, non-ferrous scrap, aluminum, tin cans. The rest are all lumped together as plastics, glass, yard waste, wood from construction sites, textiles, tires, automotive oil and filters, batteries, building or road demolition.

A most common product that seems to survive the recycling treatment are the three items of plastic, paper and glass. When you go to a fast-food restaurant, the two- or four-space drink holder has a rough surface paper structure. It is not quite cardboard consistency but is strong enough to hold soft drinks, shakes or coffee until it gets wet. Then it starts to fall apart and heads back toward the recycling area.

Eight Companies Sell 100 Percent Recycled Products

There are companies that sell a variety of recycled products from picnic tables to benches. But only eight are noted for selling 100 percent recycled products: Green Toys, Allbirds, Rothy’s, Wewood, Recover Brands, Cotopaxi, Looptworks and Terracycle.  For example, Allbirds makes footwear from wool, recycled cardboard, plastic and castor bean oil.

Products of Reverse Logistics

Reverse logistics has become an evolving term. Logistics is related to you, the customer, being able to purchase a product from a retailer. These products move through a complex supply chain beginning with raw materials and ending with that can of fruit, cut of meat, or box of cookies you purchased.

The term reverse logistics refers to items that you, as the customer, return to the store or mail to the organization from which you purchased it online. Today, it also refers to one of the many stores that now accept returns for other retailers. It sounds simple, but reverse logistics involves “recapturing value” from the products you have returned.

A process flow of what this reverse logistic process looks like follows:

  1. Item is returned to store physically or it is mailed to a store
  2. Item is collected in a distribution center (DC) or centralized returns center (CRC)
  3. Item is sorted and labeled as to what it is
  4. Item is placed in a container for destruction or recycling or
  5. Item is placed in a storage area or bin for distribution
  6. Item is transported to a retail store or placed in online sales inventory

This direction of product movement shows the customer returning the product to a collection point. The product goes to a distribution center (DC) or centralized returns center (CRC), which is basically a warehouse. The product is sorted, catalogued and sent to a disposition location, which could be a landfill or a discount store, for resale or recycling. The information flow shows that each product is tracked in a data base for analysis and decision making.

Products for reverse logistics include not only returned items, but also repairs and broken items that were fixed and repackaging for other discount retailers to sell, such as Dollar Tree and Dollar General.

Reverse Logistics Is a Foundation for the Greening of the Environment

More than a business process, reverse logistics is a foundation for the greening of the environment.

The Reverse Logistics Association (RLA) is dedicated to tracking and reporting on innovative business ventures and processes for the reverse flow of products. Reverse logistics is now a central part of optimizing supply chains to save costs and time and transportation assets.

As Inbound Logistics explained: “Recovering products, refurbishing goods, and pulling out parts such as precious metals that can be recycled or reused are green processes, and they bring a huge benefit to the environment.” Companies such as Coca-Cola sponsor a World Without Waste program to collect and recycle Coke’s annual worldwide distribution of 110 billion plastic bottles.

Is recycling the same as reverse logistics? Currently, the product returns process has increased with the 2019 Christmas buying season. UPS expects to pick up and process more than 1 million returned packages from customers each day during December.

UPS’s 2019 Pulse of the Online Shopper study found that:

  • 73% of shoppers surveyed said the overall returns experience impacts their likelihood to purchase from a retailer again.
  • 68% of survey respondents agree that the returns experience shapes their overall perceptions of a retailer.
  • 42% said free return shipping contributes most to a positive returns experience.

Above all, recycling affects the environmental health of humans and animals by reducing airborne toxins and waterborne diseases. It also improves the health of our homes and communities.

About the Author

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at American Public University (APU). He was program director of three academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management, Transportation and Logistics Management and Government Contracting. He was Chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Dr. Hedgepeth was the founding Director of the Army’s Artificial Intelligence Center for Logistics from 1985 to 1990, Fort Lee, Virginia.

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