Recycling - Realities and Complexities

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‘We Need to recycle ‘are often repeated mantras recognised by many public officials to whom recycling is really a question of morality rather than a cost-benefit analysis.  In reality, the survival of the recycling movement depends on continual subsidies, sermons and policing.

Each household produces around 1 tonne of rubbish every year and the amount is increasing. Britons go through 3 billion cups a year and that’s more than 8 million a year. But fewer than 400 get recycled!

The most common recyclable materials are paper, plastic, glass and metal and as we try to sort everything into the right bins, we probably assume we are helping our community and protecting the environment.

But are we? Or are we in fact wasting our time? Does recycling help the environment or are we in fact just wasting our time?

One of the original goals of the recycling movement was to avert a supposed crisis as the nation’s landfills were running out of space. But because more and more materials types have been added to the recyclable list, the process has become complex and more expensive than expected.

The problems and obstacles facing recycling as a sustainable solution are:

  • We do not really understand our waste! There are many materials that we do not know if they count as recyclable or not. We try our best to dispose the right type of waste into the right type of recycling bins; but despite all the work into raising awareness about waste and its environmental impact, has anyone seen happens next after the bins are collected and the waste processed? If the recyclable waste does not get into the right bin, it will end up in the landfill! Bottles that have the wrong type of plastic, or a tiny bit of drink residue, are likely to be rejected  as well.

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  • The requirements and needs of the local authority’s recycling system are too daunting for one to understand and familiarise oneself with. Furthermore, each council has its own requirement as there is no standardisation. Hence incorrect recycling behaviour is common.
  • Recycling labels are not standardised and majority of the recycled items are not labelled properly. Recycling information is confusing and at times conflicting and hence incorrect recycling behaviour is common.
  • The recycling operations itself are not environmentally friendly as they involve more trucks on the road and composting facilities have resulted in nauseating odours and pests. Furthermore, the prices for recyclable materials have plummeted because of lower oil prices and reduced overseas demand.

We need to ask ourselves: What is the goal here?

To offset the greenhouse impact of one passenger’s round-trip flight between New York and London, we’d have to recycle roughly 40,000 plastic bottles, assuming we fly coach. If we sit in business or first class, where each passenger takes up more space, it could be more like 100,000!

The chief benefit of recycling is no doubt the reduction of carbon emissions and the greenhouse gases as we reduce the need to manufacture new products, hence less mining, drilling and logging.

But how much difference does it make? Here’s some perspective
According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s estimates, more than 90 percent reduction in greenhouse gases come from just a few materials - paper, cardboard and metals like the aluminium in soda cans.  Recycling one ton of metal or paper saves about three tons of carbon dioxide while recycling one ton of plastic saves only slightly more than one ton of carbon dioxide. A ton of food saves a little less than a ton. For glass, you have to recycle three tons in order to get about one ton of greenhouse benefits and it takes 20 tons of yard waste to save a single ton of carbon dioxide. We can accomplish more by sorting paper and aluminium cans than by worrying about yogurt containers and half-eaten dinners!

So how can we really build a sustainable community with a strategy that can’t even sustain itself?  What is the solution?

Would a simpler disposing of products that will biodegrade in a landfill be more sustainable?