Recycling is about much more than just reducing the amount of waste sent to the landfill, with a long list of benefits that aren't limited to the environment -- there are economic and social advantages too.
Even as we live in a consumer-driven world, with a growing appetite for new things, if we begin to look at the waste created by this level of consumption in a different light, we might turn our problem into an opportunity.
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What is recycling?
Every day, we produce a vast amount of waste that ends up in landfills or polluting our oceans. From plastic bottles to food packaging, our throwaway culture is taking a toll on the environment. Recycling is one of the most effective ways to reduce the amount of waste that goes to landfills and to mitigate the negative impact on the planet.
Whether it’s plastic, paper, or aluminum, the products, and materials that can be used after they fulfill their original purpose are far from worthless. In fact, most materials have great recycling value. The EPA estimates that up to 75% of all the waste can be recycled or repurposed, a figure that shows how impactful the process can be if done right.
Almost everything we see around us can be technically recycled, although different materials require different techniques when they are recycled. Most of the commonly recyclable materials include batteries, biodegradable waste, clothing, electronics, garments, glass, metals, paper, plastics, and a lot more.
Recycling is the process of separating, collecting, and remanufacturing or converting used or waste products into new materials. But if we want to truly focus on recycling, it's important to change the way we address it both on a personal and societal level.
Recycling helps extend the life and usefulness of something that has already served its initial purpose by returning it to its raw materials and then using those materials to produce something that is usable. It’s part of the three golden rules of sustainability (Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle) and has a lot of benefits both to us humans and to the environment. Virtually all of the environment is impacted by how much we recycle.
Benefits of recycling
The world's natural resources are finite, and some are in very short supply. At a fundamental level, recycling paper and wood can save trees and forests, recycling plastic means creating less new polluting plastic, recycling metals means there’s less need for hugely costly mining, and recycling glass reduces the use of new raw materials like sand that affect coastal systems.
Of course, the reality of it is much more complex, but the fundamental process is valid nonetheless. Some materials are technically recyclable, but doing so is so expensive it virtually never happens, while other materials retain their properties better than others. Metals, for instance, are repeatedly recyclable, while maintaining most or all of their properties.
The most obvious benefit of recycling is the reduction of landfill waste. Landfills are rapidly filling up, and many cities are struggling to find new places to dump their trash. Recycling reduces the amount of waste that goes to landfills, making it a vital solution to the problem of overflowing landfills. When we recycle, we give new life to materials that would otherwise end up in a landfill.
Recycling reduces the need to grow, harvest, or extract new raw materials from the Earth. That, in turn, reduces the harmful disruption and damage being done to the natural world, which means fewer forests cut down, rivers diverted, wild animals harmed or displaced, and less pollution.
It’s also much better to recycle existing products than to damage someone else's community or land during the exploration and exploitation of new raw materials. The demand for new goods has led to more of the poorest and most vulnerable people being displaced from their homes or otherwise exploited.
Making products from recycled materials typically requires less energy than making them from new raw materials -- sometimes it's a huge difference in energy. For example, producing new aluminum from old products uses 95% less energy than making it from scratch. For steel, the energy saving is around 70%. Recycling paper saves 60% of the energy required to produce new paper from wood pulp. By conserving energy, we reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted during the production process. While not always, manufacturing something the second time around usually consumes far less energy.
Because recycling means you need to use less energy on sourcing and processing new raw materials, it produces lower carbon emissions, which means it can help with global warming. It also keeps potentially methane-releasing waste out of landfill sites. Overall, reducing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases being emitted into the atmosphere is vital to stop climate change.
Recycling also makes economic sense. As a rule of thumb, it's six times cheaper to dispose of recycled waste than general refuse. So, the more you recycle, and the less you put in the bin, the more money is saved -- which should be good for households, businesses, and local public services. Recycling food waste and green waste is a great idea too, often generating lots of valuable compost.
Recycling can stimulate the economy in multiple ways. The EPA has shown recycling helps to create jobs in both the recycling and manufacturing industries. Recycling companies need workers to collect, sort, and process materials. These jobs can range from manual labor to high-tech positions, providing employment opportunities for people with different levels of education and skill. A 2016 study said recycling activities account in a single year for 757,000 jobs, $36.6 billion in wages, and $6.7 billion in tax revenues.
Recycling also helps protect wildlife. When we dispose of waste improperly, it can end up in our oceans and harm marine life. For example, plastic waste can entangle and suffocate sea turtles and other animals. By recycling, we reduce the amount of waste that ends up in our oceans and protect marine life.
The steps of recycling
Recycling includes three essential steps, which create a continuous loop, represented by the familiar recycling symbol. The first one is to actually collect the recyclables, which can be done in different ways. For example, they can be collected from the curbside, dropped off at centers, or gathered through deposit or refund programs.
Following the collection, recyclables are sent to a recovery facility where they are sorted, cleaned, and processed into materials that can be used in manufacturing. Recyclables are then bought and sold just like raw materials would be, and prices go up and down depending on supply and demand.
A growing number of products are being manufactured with recycled content. Common household items that contain recycled materials are newspapers, steel cans, plastic laundry detergents, and soft drink containers. Recycled materials are also used in new ways such as recovered glass in asphalt to pave roads.
Consumers can help close the recycling loop by buying new products made from recycled materials. There are thousands of products that contain recycled content. When you go shopping, look for products that can be easily recycled and products that contain recycled content.
Types of recycled materials
It’s important to recycle any materials possible, but one of the most relevant is plastic as it is such a big part of the solid waste that we make. When plastic is sent to a landfill, it does not break down as it’s not biodegradable, and even in ocean water, plastic stays around virtually forever, breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces called microplastics. Most plastics are used only once before they are discarded, known as single-use plastics -- this type of single-use plastic is already being banned in many parts of the world.
Recycling metal is also very important as it saves energy, reduces emissions, and creates jobs. Using recycled metal, known as scrap metal, instead of new metal reduces mining waste by 97% and saves more than 90% on energy, depending on the material. Recycling metals creates six times more jobs than sending the metals to a landfill.
The same applies to paper recycling. One ton of recycled paper saves 17 trees and 7,000 gallons of water. It also saves energy, about 4,000 kilowatts of it, enough t power an average American home for six months. Paper takes up a lot of space in landfills, so the more is recycled the better the landfills operate.
Like paper, cardboard recycling uses less water, cuts back on emissions, saves prime real estate in landfills for materials that are not recyclable, and prevents deforestation. It is estimated that recycling one ton of cardboard can save 17 trees from harm, and 7,000 gallons of water.
Reduce and reuse
You may have heard of "The 3 R's": Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. While recycling is important, the most effective way to reduce waste is to not create it in the first place. Making a new product requires a lot of materials and energy and then the product has to be transported to wherever it will be sold. That means reducing and reusing are also important ways to protect the environment.
Some of the ways to reduce and reuse include looking for products that use less packaging, which means less raw materials, buying reusable over disposable items, maintaining and repairing products like clothing so they don’t have to be thrown away, as well as borrowing, renting or sharing items that are used infrequently like tools. Reducing our consumption should be the first step, and reusing also tends to be far more sustainable than recycling.
Recycling means turning an item into raw materials which can be used again, either for the same product or a new one, while reusing means using an object as it is, without treatment.
The reason why recycling is so important is that it prevents pollution, reduces the need to harvest new raw materials, saves energy, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, saves money, reduces the amount of waste that ends up in landfills, and allows products to be used to their fullest extent. Sounds like a no-brainer, eh? If our society wants to truly reach some level of sustainability, recycling needs to play a core role in that, there's just no alternative.