Zero Waste

A to Z of zero Waste: R – Recycling

Welcome to our series of posts on the A-Z of zero waste!

An overview of everything that has been shared so far can be found here.


This week we are talking about recycling and it can help up reduce waste. There is much contradictory talk about recycling and its role in waste reduction but talking in absolutes won't help us understand difficult subjects. Recycling definitely has a place in reducing waste but its effectiveness will vary depending on what you are comparing it to.

When many people learn about zero waste living, they often come across Bea Johnson and the Zero Waste Home very early on. To explain how she has managed to go zero waste she explains the principles; 5 'R's of zero waste - Refuse, reduce, reuse, RECYCLE, rot. Recycling has a role to play in reducing waste noted by it's inclusion in these principles, but as you can see it is the fourth of five options because its not perfect, and there are more effective things we can do before recycling.

How we view recycling will depend on whether we are comparing it to not recycling because we are making things new and throwing them into landfill, or not recycling because we are not generating any waste to be recycled.

Broadly we can look at the pros and cons of recycling, however these are not equally weighted. The problems with recycling may look more numerous but the benefits are overarching and have a big positive impact.

Benefits:
  • Keeps materials in circulation and out of landfill - this is the main benefit and the premise behind recycling. Recycling moves towards a circular economy which is what we strive for in a zero waste life.
  • Less energy intensive than making new - It takes around 95% less energy to make products from recycled materials than using raw materials (1). Less energy use means fewer fossil fuels being burnt which is a real benefit as they contribute to climate change and our current climate crisis.
  • Reduces demand for new material - when we can use recycled materials it means we can rely less on metal mining, oil drilling and deforestation. All of these practices are damaging to our environment so if we can reuse the materials that already exist then we can leave the rest of these finite resources where they are.
  • Reduce climate change - now you may not know this but recycling is so energy efficient that it is actually listed in the Drawdown several times as a way to reduce climate change. Increasing Household recycling, Industrial Recycling and recycled paper use can actually protect our planet from the current climate crisis.
Problems:
  • Lack of buyers or market - Simply put, recycling is a business and will only be done if there is a market for someone to buy that recycled material once it has been processed. If there is a decrease in the desire for recycled materials then recycling rates will go down. If it is cheaper to use virgin plastic than recycled plastic then that is what companies will use.
  • Lack of infrastructure - Recycling needs a lot of infrastructure to be able to collect your waste, sort it, process it, and sell it on. Some places just don't have that kind of infrastructure so recycling isn't accessible in those places. In the past we have sent recycling abroad as that is where the best markets were, but countries like China are now closing their ports to our recycling and often the home country doesn't have the infrastructure to recycle all the waste they create as they have been relying on someone else to do it for them.
  • Down-cycling - This is the process where some materials cannot be truly recycled (in that they can become the same product again) but become a lower quality product each time it is recycled. Metal and glass can be recycled repeatedly without loss of quality (1) but plastic is often down-cycled instead. Eventually it reaches such a low quality that it is ends up in landfill after becoming a non-recyclable material.
  • Wish-cycling - If people put non-recyclable items in with their recycling because they believe or hope it should be able to be recycled then this is called wish-cycling. At best it is just that item that doesn't get recycled, but at worst it can damage recycling machinery and mean a lot more actually recyclable items cannot be recycled.
  • Contamination - Similar to wish cycling, contamination can result in whole loads of recyclable material being sent to landfill as it is contaminated with non-recyclable materials or food waste if the material is not cleaned before being put in the recycling bin. Contaminated material cannot be recycled.
  • Can be energy intensive - Now this is all about your point of view. Recycling can be much more energy efficient than creating new, but it still does require a lot of energy, meaning it is more energy intensive than reducing our waste to such a point that we no longer need recycling. There are also mixed material products (like tetra-packs) that can be recycled but are difficult to separate. On occasions we are able to avoid packaging, we are also saving energy that would be needed to recycle it.
  • Greenwashing - oh green washing. "Greenwashing is the process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company's products are more environmentally sound and is considered an unsubstantiated claim to deceive consumers into believing that a company's products are environmentally friendly." (2). Recycling is a tool that big unsustainable brands use to try to make their products seem more environmentally friendly. Coca-Cola, who have recently been named the worst plastic polluter for a second year running, have recently released an advert celebrating that their packaging is 100% recyclable (3). Just because their packaging is recyclable doesn't mean it gets recycled, and trying to use recycling as an advertising tool to sell wasteful products is a prime example of how recycling can be used to greenwash. Companies skip over the principles of refuse and reduce as they don't make them a profit, and focus on recycling.

"90.5%: the proportion of plastic waste that has never been recycled. Estimated at 6,300 million metric tonnes, it’s thought that around 12% of all plastic waste has been incinerated, with roughly 79% accumulating in either landfill or the natural environment" - source

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So we can see that recycling is a great tool to keep materials in circulation, move towards a circular economy and protect against climate change, but it does have many problems, and a lot of plastic and other recyclable materials are just not being recycled at all. So how can we use recycling the right way to help reduce waste but not rely on it?

1. Firstly try to reduce any waste so that you are sending less to landfill and recycling overall. Choose items that you can reuse instead of throwing away.

2. Choose recyclable materials instead of ones that go straight to landfill, and prioritise infinitely recyclable ones like glass and metal.

3. Make sure you know what you can recycle in your area so you are not wish-cycling. Check out RecycleNow if you are in the UK to see what your home recycling collects, or check out your local municipality information.

4. Empty and wash your recycling before putting in the bin to reduce contamination.

5. Encourage others to recycle, ask for recycling bins to be put around your work place or school, and if you see recyclable materials littered, pick them up, wash them and recycle them when you get home.

Hopefully I have been able to show you that although recycling is not enough to fully reduce our waste and protect our planet, that is is a really valuable tool that we can use to supplement our efforts to reduce waste, and that it is one we should be trying to use well. It can seem so tempting to put something in the recycling a little bit dirty, or because you feel it should be able to be recycled but I hope you now see that a few second extra effort is worth it to help keep these valuable resources in circulation.


References:

  1. RecycleNow
  2. Investopedia - Greenwashing
  3. I am not linking to Coca-Cola but you can search for their 100% recyclable campaign on Ecosia.
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