• Tamsin Lacourte

Recycling: How a small gesture can save the world

There’s a lot of talk about recycling, but it’s easy to forget what the process entails and why it’s so important in 2021. In this blog post, we’re going back to the basics and explore why a circular economy cannot be achieved without recycling.

According to the Cambridge dictionary definition, recycling is “the activity of treating materials or products using a special industrial process so that they can be used again.” The key words being “used again”. By processing waste into new products, recycling creates an economy where waste is valued and profitable.

While the origins of recycling can be traced back to the 9th C, recycling as we know it with kerbside collections started in the 1960s as a means to combat the growing tide of waste that was being produced during the golden age of consumerism. In the 21st C, the average UK resident produces just under 400kg of waste. A large proportion of this waste is discarded in landfills, where it is compacted and buried. As our waste stream continues to grow, so will the pressures on our landfills, our resources, our environment and our wellbeing.

There are 4 important benefits to recycling:

Reduces landfilled waste

The city of London currently generates 7 million tonnes of municipal waste, of which a staggering 54% is sent to landfills or incinerated. London’s annual waste bill stands at an excess of £2 billion, a cost projected to increase substantially as London’s population grows and it is likely that taxpayers’ money will foot the bill.

London’s landfills are quickly saturating and are expected to reach capacity by 2026. Moreover, degradation of waste releases pollutants into air and groundwater, particularly organic matter which emits methane, a green-house gas with a global warming potential 25 times greater than CO2. Although incineration is prioritised, an estimated 620,000 tonnes of CO2 were produced in 2016. Recycling diverts waste from being landfilled or incinerated. For example, recycling a tonne of aluminum saves 40 barrels of oil and 10 cubic years of landfill space.

Reduces pressure on natural resources

Recycling gives a second life to a product that would other wise be lost. This process alleviates the pressure on Earth’s finite resources since demand for virgin materials decreases. The impact of recycling on natural resources depends on the material. Unfortunately, the recycling potential differs across materials; while glass has a 100% recovery rate and can be recycled indefinitely, plastic can undergo the process once or twice before losing all properties.

Reduces environmental harm

Recycling can prevent habitat degradation and biodiversity loss through several means. First of all, the extraction of natural resources is resource-intensive and polluting: mining and logging drive deforestation and global warming. The transportation of raw materials across the globe and manufacturing into virgin materials generates significant amounts of greenhouse gases and pollution of air and aquatic environments.

Reduces energy use

Extracting raw materials and manufacturing virgin materials are resource-intensive processes. Recycling a material conserves energy because the material has already been refined and processed once. For example, recycling a tonne of aluminum soda cans saves 95% of energy. That’s because mining, shipping and refining bauxite (bozite) ore consumed 21,000 kilowatt hours. Recycling a tonne of PET plastic conserves 7,200 kilowatt hours.

In a circular economy, recycling presents a last resort to maintain materials within the economy. That’s after all else has failed: repair, redistribution, refurbishment, re-manufacturing loops. Despite its close to last position in a circular economy structure, recycling is the best alternative to landfilling and incineration and has resulted in a significant decrease in greenhouse gas emissions over time. Until longevity is designed in items and investments in innovative technologies are made, recycling needs to be prioritised.

Graph showing the evolution of EU waste management greenhouse gas emissions from 1990-2017. Emissions measured include emissions by solid waste disposal, wastewater treatment and discharge, and incineration and open burning of waste. Data expressed in million of tonnes of CO2 equivalent.