Recycling is a key aspect of modern waste reduction, and is outlined as the third priority in the waste hierarchy for how to manage waste, following reduction and reuse. It seeks to achieve environmental sustainability by reducing waste output and raw material input, through the use of recycled materials. Despite its limitations, recycling has undeniable environmental benefits compared to conventional waste disposal. Recycling is also getting increasingly important because of our large and continuously growing population with modern consumer habits.
What is Recycling?
Recycling is the process of turning waste into reusable materials and objects. The recycling process consists of three steps: collection, processing and buying. These three steps create a recycling loop, which is represented by the three arrows in the recycling symbol found on recyclables.
In the first step of the recycling process, the recyclables are collected. Common methods for collecting recyclables include: house-to-house collection, curb-side collection, drop-off locations and deposit or refund programs. Once collected, the recyclables are transported to recovery facilities for processing.
In the recovery facilities the collected recyclables are sorted, cleaned and processed into reusable materials. The processed materials are then sold to companies, just as raw materials, to manufacture recycled products.
The final step in the recycling process involves the purchasing of recycled products. To close the recycling loop, consumers must buy products made from recycled materials. We as individuals therefore play an important role in the success of the recycling process.
Why is Recycling Important?
Recycling is an important measure in conserving the environment. The process of turning waste into new products has four key environmental benefits:
Recycling Reduces Waste
Recycling reduces the amount of waste ending up in landfills and incinerators, which in turn reduces the amount of chemicals and poisonous gasses being released into the environment.
Recycling Saves Energy
Recycling saves energy as it uses significantly less energy than what is required for manufacturing virgin products. By consuming less power, the amount of toxic fumes released into the environment are reduced, valuable natural resources are conserved, and ecosystems are protected from destruction.
Recycling Conserves Natural Resources
Recycling reduces the need to collect valuable raw materials by repurposing unwanted materials and therefore conserves the world’s finite natural resources.
Recycling Conserves Ecosystems and Biodiversity
By reducing the dependency on raw materials, less disruption and damage are being inflicted on the natural world. This in turn conserves ecosystems and biodiversity.
What Can Be Recycled?
Most of the waste we generate can be recycled. Recyclable materials include paper, plastics, metal, glass, textiles and electronics. While the universal recycling symbol is helpful to indicate that a product is capable of being recycled, it does not indicate that the product actually will be accepted for recycling. It is therefore not always clear what types of items we can and cannot recycle.
Paper products represent the largest waste group in most countries. All clean paper products can be recycled, such as newspapers, cardboard boxes, paper packaging and magazines. These types of paper products need to be separated from generic waste into the paper recycling bin. Stained paper products, such as used pizza boxes or dirty napkins with food waste or oily residue unfortunately cannot be recycled and should be discarded together with general waste.
While the chasing arrows in the recycling icon found on plastic products have become synonymous with the ability to recycle a product, this is unfortunately not the case. While technically all plastics can be recycled, many types of plastic are not being processed for recycling as it is simply cheaper and easier to use new plastic. In order to identify which plastic products that are actually recyclable, one must look at the resin numbers located in the middle of the chasing-arrow symbol on plastic products. These numbers identify the plastic type of the product and range from 1 to 7. Unfortunately, only products marked with 1 and 2 are usually processed for recycling. These types of products should be sorted, rinsed and be placed in the recycling bin or delivered to a drop-off location. Certain countries additionally have deposit systems in place, such as in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Sweden and Norway where plastic bottles labeled as a “deposit bottle” (pfand, flaschendepot, pant etc.) should be returned to refund centres located in most supermarkets.
Which Plastics Are Recyclable?
While it is a common perception that all glass types can be recycled, only glass bottles and glass jars from households are processed for recycling. These types of glass products are fully recyclable and can be recycled indefinitely without losing purity or quality. Most countries either have a curb-side pickup system or a drop-off location in place that processes these products for recycling. Many glass bottles are additionally accepted at refund centres in countries with deposit programmes. As it may be difficult to recycle dirty glass products, it is important to empty and rinse bottles and jars before discarding them. Other household products, such as mirrors, windows, ceramics, tableware and light bulbs require higher melting points and can therefore not be recycled and should be disposed of in general waste. For safety reasons, broken glass should be placed in a cardboard box before being placed in general waste.
Recycling Steel and Aluminium
Both steel and aluminium are fully recyclable materials that can be recycled an infinite amount of times without loss in quality. Steel and aluminium are common product packaging materials and are most commonly found in beverage- and food cans or tins. These types of product packaging are widely accepted for recycling and are usually collected for recycling through curb-side pickup systems or at drop-off locations. Most beverage cans are additionally accepted at refund centres in countries with deposit programmes. Tins and cans should be rinsed before being prepared for collection or drop-off. Products such as clean aluminum foil, empty aerosols, metal lids, foil trays, bottle screw caps, aluminium tubes are also usually accepted for recycling.
Unwanted clothes and textiles, if not sold, should be donated for re-use or recycling. Most communities have drop-off locations accepting clothes, shoes and other textiles, such as curtains, bed sheets, duvet covers and blankets. When donated, items that are in good condition are usually re-used as second hand items, while items that are not suitable for re-use are processed for recycling and are repurposed.
Unwanted electronic waste or e-waste, such as mobile phones, televisions, computers, laptops, and tablets are highly recyclable, even if the device is broken. Electronic devices consist of several materials, such as plastic, glass, iron, copper, aluminium, palladium, silver and even gold that can be recovered and reused in new products. Because electronics contain toxic and hazardous chemicals it is crucial to properly dispose of these devices in order to eliminate environmental risks associated with electrical goods ending up in landfills. You can dispose of your electronics the following ways:
Donate Your Electronics
Before submitting your e-waste for recycling, explore the opportunity to donate your unwanted electronic devices to charity or other non-profit organisations for re-use. Many charities accept electronic donations, even malfunctioning electronics, which they repair and resell to support their cause.
Return Your Electronics
Most tech companies and electronic retailers have recycling programs in place to make it easier for the consumer to dispose of unwanted electronic items. In Europe electronic device manufacturers are even required by law to accept electronics for recycling. Some companies and retailers even offer incentives for recycling your old electronics, by offering you money or credit towards your next purchase. To dispose of your unwanted device, get in contact with the device manufacturer or the retailer of which you purchased your product and inquire about their electronic recycling programme.
Find Recycling Centre
In Europe, the public sector is required by law to establish e-waste recycling centres and to accept electronic waste at these centres for free. If the above disposal alternatives are not possible, contact your local authorities or visit their website to find your nearest recycling centre to dispose of your unwanted electronics.
The Disadvantages of Recycling
While recycling is a key aspect of modern waste reduction, there are reasons for why the process of recycling is not listed as the preferred method for managing waste. The key disadvantages of recycling are outlined as follows:
Recycling Consumes Energy
While recycling uses significantly less energy than what is required for manufacturing virgin products, it is a process that still requires a significant amount of energy. Energy is required in all steps, from the collection and transportation of recyclables to the sorting, cleaning and processing of the waste into reusable materials. This energy consumption turn adversely contributes to our environmental footprint.
While recycling is the process of turning waste into reusable materials and objects, a common reality is that recyclables are actually being downcycled. Downcycling is the process of turning waste materials into new materials of lower quality than the original material. Consequently, the functionality of the new material is reduced as the quality limits the applications of which the material can be used in. Downcycling is the result of poor product design, which in turn leads to inefficient recycling and consequently, lower-value products.
Many Items Cannot Be Recycled
Many products and much product packaging are simply not designed for being recycled. This is especially true for items that consist of mixed materials, soiled paper products, many plastic items and electronics.
Recycling is Not a Long-Term Solution
Recycling is not considered a long-term sustainable solution to waste reduction. This is because materials such as paper and plastic are not endlessly recyclable and can only be recycled a certain amount of times before becoming unusable. Once unusable, the materials are discarded as general waste, ending up being burnt in incinerators or buried in landfills.
Recycling Creates a False Sense of Security
While recycling is one important component of waste management, it may cause a false sense of security in where we believe that we are proactively protecting the environment. This may lead to attitudes of entitled consumerism, where people justify purchasing products that are harmful to the environment through the process of recycling.