The essence and importance of recycling can sometimes be lost in translation. With so many different regional systems, we remind you of the rationale behind recycling and some of the key guiding principles when choosing what goes where.
The amount of waste being recycled in regions such as the US and Europe has been steadily increasing. In the US, for example, the amount of municipal waste recycled has more than trebled in the last 40 years. This is in part thanks to authorities such as those in San Francisco investing in new facilities, as well as a change in consumer behaviour.
Go us! But, we’re still not there yet. Worldwide, 91% plastic isn’t recycled. It’s important to remind ourselves from time-to-time just how beneficial the good deed that a lot of us now do automatically, is for the environment, and give ourselves a pat on the back.
One way of understanding why recycling is such a crucial aspect of creating a more sustainable world, is by examining the outcome when something isn’t recycled. Everything we use, be it an aluminum can, a plastic bottle, an iPhone or a car, all took a lot of energy and resources to produce.
The Midas Touch
Like King Midas with his golden touch, over the last century we’ve become extremely proficient at turning brown, stinky goo aka crude oil, or its equivalent natural gas, into the useful material that is plastic. But, like with poor King Midas, it’s become a bit of an issue.
Just the extraction of the raw materials, neither of which are renewable, puts a huge burden on the planet in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and pollution.
After the gas or the crude is extracted it has to be transported, a risky proposition in the best of circumstances, and then be refined to make ethylene – a process requiring vast amounts of energy.
Then the ethylene has to be combined with other chemicals and solvents to transform it into usable raw plastic (usually pellets or flakes) that then in turn has to be transported to another facility that transforms it into a bottle.
So, as we can see, the resulting bottle equates to a lot of expended energy and resources. Throwing it away into a landfill after a single use seems like the very definition of insanity. It makes so much more environmental (and economic) sense to recycle instead.
A closer look at what the steel industry has been doing for 150 years
The story is very similar with metals. It takes an incredible amount of energy to extract metal ore from the Earth. Mining also scars the land and can ruin water and ecosystems, not to mention the dangers.
The good news is that when it comes to metals, we are already on the right track. Today, about 75 percent of all aluminum produced in history, nearly a billion tons, is still in use. Not only is it infinitely recyclable, it takes up to 95 percent less energy to recycle than to produce new aluminum.
The steel industry has also been actively recycling for more than 150 years. Not out of any sense of environmental stewardship, but because it makes economic sense. It simply costs less money to recycle steel than to mine ore and process it into new steel.
Metals can be recycled indefinitely because they lose fewer of their inherent physical properties during the recycling process. Making something from reprocessed scrap drastically reduces energy and material requirements required when compared with refinement from raw ore.
The unholy trinity of landfills, leaching, and methane
In addition to the heartbreaking waste that occurs when something is tossed into a landfill instead of being properly recycled, landfills themselves are another major environmental hazard. Chemical leachate, or the contaminated water that drains from a landfill, pollutes the surrounding ecosystems, ending up in rivers, oceans, animals, and in humans too, something that Midas could relate to.
Landfills also emit gases such as CO2 and methane. Out of the two, methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas, with each molecule having twenty-five times the effect of a molecule of carbon dioxide. Sometimes it is captured and used productively, but mostly it is just flared, or worse, released into the air.
How do we go about avoiding all the terrible things you just read?
Here is a reminder about why we should recycle. Recycling can be tough! Depending on where you live, there are different facilities available, and sometimes products occupy a recycling grey area – “where does this go?”
Sort! The most important of all. The wrong item in the wrong bin can contaminate a whole load of perfectly good recycling, meaning that despite your best intentions it will end up in landfill.
- Only recycle if you’re sure. If you’re not 100%, then stick with what you know, for the reason given above. When in doubt, throw it out!
- Buy products made from renewable materials that can be reused multiple times (such as our phone case made from plant waste).
- Rinse items before putting them in the recycling to avoid contamination, stop your bin from smelling, and to avoid pests.
- Let people know you recycle! Be proud of your efforts and help to inspire others, we need all of you on board for this.
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