Recycling. We all do it to a lesser or greater degree. We separate out plastic, glass, paper, cans etc placing them in whichever bin our council says we should and get that slightly warm and fuzzy feeling that we have just done our bit to help the environment.
However is recycling always the best way to deal with much of our our rubbish?
Not all materials can be easily recycled and the amount of energy needed to recycle things varies:
Glass can be recycled indefinitely but the cost of recycling it back to new glass is only about 20% cheaper than creating new glass. With raw materials readily available it therefore does not always make sense to recycle it. The majority of glass that goes into recycling bins in the UK is green glass and it is actually made into building aggregate since as well as the cost of recycling it, most comes from imported wine bottles and the bottles would need to be exported back to the countries where wine is produced, adding yet more cost to the process. The UK simply does not have a market for the recycled bottles.
Recycling aluminium uses 96% less energy than getting "new" aluminium from bauxite and it can also be recycled indefinitely without degrading and therefore recycling cans makes good sense.
Newsprint is fairly economical to recycle (46% less energy than creating new) but it soon reaches a state where its quality is degraded too much for it to be used again.
Plastic is more complicated as there are so many different types found in consumer goods. Soft drinks bottles are mostly made from PET (Polyethenylene tetraphthalate) and whilst PET can be recycled the process is more expensive than making new bottles from petroleum. Instead most PET bottles are down-cycled into polyester to be used in carpets and clothing which invariably end up in landfill when they are no longer needed as they cannot be recycled.
When it comes to goods made from different materials e.g. electronics and white goods then recycling becomes more difficult and more expensive. Large amounts of these goods are sold to China where high demand for the raw materials contained within them and cheap labour to extract them makes recycling viable. Container ships arrive in China loaded with Western recycling and return full of new goods, made from the constituent parts, heading for our shops. However, many electronics contain products that can be harmful to both the environment and workers dismantling them.
There is also the problem of contaminated recycling where items are put in the wrong bins which are then rejected. In 2014-15, 338,000 tonnes of recycling was rejected in this way in the UK.
Economics and ease of recycling both play a large part in what is recycled and what happens to all those things we happily put in our recycling bins. It is all too easy to think that the glass or plastic bottle, newspaper or tin can we recycle will live on in the same form but this is not always the case and economics still trumps the environment in most cases.
So what should we be doing in the future?
We cannot keep adding waste to landfill and we need to increase how much of our waste is recycled. This currently stands between 30% and 45% in the UK depending what report you read but compared to Austria and Holland at 60% the UK could do better. But recycling is not cheap and itself uses large amounts of energy but by reducing the amount of packaging used we can reduce the amount of recycling needed.
Recycling needs to be made easier for the public which can be achieved by technology developing better recycling centres to sort the waste and cheaper methods of actually recycling it. If we are to continue using plastic we need to find a way to recycle it back to the same form and not a downgraded form that will then go to landfill. Ultimately though, the amount of plastic we can recycle will depend on how much fossil fuel is available as this is its raw materiel which is a finite resource.
We need to buy products that are made from recycled materials to help drive down the price of recycling.
Re-using products is another solution. Not many years ago far more products were reused rather than recycled. The average glass milk bottle is used 4-6 times (and often more) where-as a plastic bottle gets used just once before it is turned into a fleece top for example which cannot be recycled. That said, re-using is not without its problems as glass itself is heavy to transport and cleaning the bottles uses energy.
Less packaging, better recycling and re-using are all ways to hep deal with the amount of waste we create. However there is one huge step we could all take to help reduce this problem of waste and recycling ... if we were all to consume less in the first place then we would need to recycle less. This is the most sustainable solution but perhaps one that not too many people are willing as yet to adopt.
Do you think you could consume less to reduce your waste and recycling burden on the planet?