Is recycling worth it?

By Trash Talk on Mar 4, 08 09:56 AM

A recurring question that arises in any debate about waste is the extent to which recycling offers real benefit to the planet; in effect asking “is recycling worth it?�
You have to narrow down what you mean by worth it – mostly this means is it worth it in terms of energy used – and this can be viewed as the carbon footprint of recycling versus the carbon footprint of manufacturing from new, versus the carbon footprint of waste incineration versus the carbon footprint of landfill.

As the saying goes “there is no such thing as a free lunch,� and doing anything with waste takes energy – recycling does not come for free but then again neither does producing products from raw material.

The first point to note is that we produce a huge amount of waste. Each UK household produces over 1 tonne of waste per year according to Waste Watch a leading environmental organisation.

The second point to note is: The Earth is a closed systems and when we run out of raw materials we have nowhere else to go for them.

The most obvious example is oil – plastic is made from oil – when that runs out where are we going to get our plastic bottles from or our nylon tights. Not only that but oil is also used in a huge variety of other products from medicines to cosmetics.

Metal is also a finite resource in that there is only so much of it that can be mined from the Earth. There may be more floating in space but in reality it is out of our reach.

Even wood is not as endless as you may at first think. Paper might grow on trees but you have to cut them down, haul them for miles, processes the trees to turn them into paper. The trees have used up soil resource (nutrients, possible chemical fertilisers, etc) and you have just cut down a carbon sink – in other words something that was locking up carbon dioxide in a form that does not contribute to global warming.

In carbon terms one of the worst things you can do with your rubbish is burn it. Even if you ignore the problems with incinerator emissions and contaminated ash. As soon as you burn something the carbon locked inside the material becomes carbon dioxide – a greenhouse gas. When incinerated one tonne of waste becomes one tonne of carbon dioxide (enough to fill a two storey three-bedroom house) helping to “fuel� global warming.

You don’t want to landfill it either. Although landfill this does lock up the carbon into the site – in the long term the biologically active waste begins to break down and produce methane. Methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas – some can be captured and burnt to produce power but some escapes to the atmosphere.

Of course collecting and reprocessing material for recycling takes energy and therefore has a carbon footprint. But this is much less than the carbon footprint of making the material from scratch. The carbon footprint of making a product from raw materials has to take into account harvesting, processing and transporting the material, turning this into a form that a manufacturer can use and then making it into an actual product. With a recycled product a lot of the processing has already been done and the material is often closer to the place of eventual manufacture. WRAP (the Waste and Resource Action Programme) calculated that current recycling efforts in the UK reduces our overall carbon emissions by between 10 to 15 million tonnes per year. WRAP commissioned a study that reviewed existing life cycle analysis projects that looked at the impact on the environment of managing material through recycling, incineration and landfill. The results clearly showed that recycling offered more environmental benefits compared to landfill and incineration.

The question – “Is recycling worth it?� goes to the heart of the debate about what to do with the planet’s resources, how best to use the energy we produce and how to manage our stewardship of the Earth.

Putting recycling top of the agenda focuses people and businesses into looking at the entire lifecycle of a product. It stimulates investment in the recycling industry, in the manufacturing industry and in the reuse industry. By putting time and effort into thinking how waste can be reduced to zero stimulates designers to come up with packaging and products that can be easily reused or recycled. Recycling creates new markets and new opportunities for business.
So talking about recycling has wider implication than just noting the carbon footprint of one green wine bottle.

For more information on waste and recycling go to

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