Is Recycling Sustainable?
Updated: Mar 14, 2022
We have become more and more aware of the fact that the amount of waste we produce also requires a lot of space on our dear planet. As our population continues to increase we are affecting the space we require to live in so we are more looking into something more sustainable. Nowadays less is waste is thrown away because we become more and more aware of the fact that recycling is more sustainable than throwing waste away…or is it?
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Let's take a closer look by first looking at what recycling is, why is recycling great and why isn’t recycling the solution.
What is recycling?
In short, recycling is the process of converting waste materials into new materials. It is the process of collecting and processing materials that would otherwise be thrown away as trash. It is an eco-friendly method of waste management for a sustainable society. There are several steps involved in the recycling process. First, the recyclables are collected and shipped to a recovery facility. Here it is sorted, cleaned, and processed into materials that are sold as new raw materials.
Advantages of recycling:
The amount of waste that ends up in landfills and incinerators is reduced.
The demand on natural resources are is reduced as recycling saves trees and forest that are often required for new raw materials.
Protects eco-systems and wildlife and therefor encourages biological diversity as their habitat is unaffected by the demand for natural resources.
This not only protects nature, indigenous habitants of the area will not be exploited for the land they live off.
Prevents pollution and carbon emission that is usually caused by the extraction of new raw materials. But not only extraction of raw materials result in emission of greenhouse gasses, also burning in incineration create an immense amount of pollution that is just dumped into the air while the local community is affect by it.
Saves energy. Burning waste not only produces an incredible amount of toxic fumes, it also requires a lot of energy to make it burn while recycling will use some energy, yes, but this is a lot less compared to the extraction of raw materials. For example, making paper from recycled paper requires 40% less energy compared to making paper from virgin wood. Also aluminium uses much less energy when recycled (up to 95% less) compared to creating raw material.
Recycling is cheaper compared waste collection and disposal. This is not only good for you but also for the economy.
The recycling industry create lots of jobs and is great for the economy. Millions of people world wide work in the recycling industry.
Disadvantages of Recycling
So recycling sounds great but there are also down sides of recycling.
The first one is that it requires a lot of energy. But you just mentioned that it saves lots of energy. Yes, but it would save even more energy if there was no need to recycle it but you could reuse it. Reducing and reusing the amount of disposable products you use is a much better alternative than recycling.
Recycling of plastic is the biggest problem and the quality of plastic significantly deteriorates when it processed. This is because plastic consists of very long flexible molecules that are sensitive to heat and light which are used to recycle and manufacture plastic. Meaning that the more they are exposed to this, the more these molecules break down. These molecule degrade more and more each time plastic is processed. These long molecules become shorter and shorter, which is an irreversible process, which means the plastic end product becomes weaker and weaker and in the end will no longer be usable. So plastic is not indefinitely recyclable like glass or metal (which are also not indefinitely recyclable but can be recycled much more often) and after about 2 to 3 times recycling this plastic will end up in landfills. This is why, recycled plastic is typically used for secondary reprocessing. This means that recycled plastic is used it to create items which are not typically recyclable themselves: textiles, asphalt and plastic lumber.
An other thing to keep in mind is that if plastic is not recycled correctly, toxic volatile organic compounds might end up in the air which might affect all life in the area (human, animal and plant).
When recycling glass, you need to keep in mind that not all glass is the same. Your glass for tea, light bulbs and vases are often not recyclable as they have a different melting point compared to glass that is used for packing food. So, if a non-recyclable glass item ends up in the recycling bin, it either needs to be removed, costing energy or the whole batch ends up not usable.
Recycling only works when someone wants to buy recycled materials and because the demand for recycled raw materials is rather low, they often end up stored somewhere for a long time.
Recycling can lead to more pollution. Electronics that are labeled as recyclable are often not taken apart and recycled in the country it was bought in. When you turn in your electronics for recycling, it is often transported to developing countries where they take your electronics apart by hand for recycling. If there are chemicals or heavy metals involved in the electronics (which is often the case when there is a battery involved) these might end up in the soil causing not only contamination of their land and waters often also the health of the workers are affected. This means the places near the recycling centers in developing countries are often heavily polluted.
So, to conclude, Recycling is good, and I’m not here to say otherwise when the options are to either toss a plastic bottle into the recycling bin or into the trash can, I am happy you choose the recycling bin but recycling is not the solution for our global trash problem as it requires lot of energy and the end product is of inferior quality compared to the original. So, is recycling sustainable? Kind of, but reusing and reducing is better.