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Recycling: Are you actually helping the environment?

Recycling is typically recognised to be one of the easiest, most accessible ways in which to make a more sustainable decision in an everyday household. In fact it feels as though we are making a conscious effort to exercise an environmentally-friendly choice when we separate recyclables like cans, glass and cardboard from general waste. But is this really the case?

What is recycling?

In simple terms, recycling refers to the process by which rubbish is made into new materials or products. Since26.4 million tonnes of rubbish was generated by Britain in 2018, recycling is an important method to reduce the volume of waste going into landfills and to reduce the amount of raw materials to make new items from scratch. To put that figure into context, 26.4 million tonnes is the equivalent of 180,000 blue whales. It’s important to reduce the waste going into landfills because this consumes more energy: the item is created using energy, which then releases greenhouse gases or creates water pollution in landfill or, alternatively, may be incinerated which contributes to air pollution. Instead, recycling uses less energy and avoids the environmentally detrimental consequences of incineration or landfill. 

The benefits of recycling 

Not only does recycling reduce or avoid pollution by preventing the item from going into landfill or being incinerated but it reduces the demand for entirely new materials. This conserves the worlds natural resources. For example, recycling plastic means less new plastic is created, or recycling paper and wood saves trees and forests. In turn, this can protect ecosystems and wildlife as less natural resources are required. 

Using recycled materials to make new products requires less energy than making them from scratch, substantially reducing carbon emissions. Producing aluminium from old products including recycled cans uses 95% less energy than if it were made from raw materials. Similarly, the energy saved by recycling just one glass bottle can power a single lightbulb for up to 4 hours – showing that when these materials are properly recycled and used instead of new products, energy levels can be significantly reduced. 

The benefits of recycling are not solely environmental but are social too: if we could achieve a 70% recycling target by 2050, 50,000 new jobs could be created across the UK. Since the current rate is at around 45% this may be unlikely, however, it demonstrates the economic benefits of an effective recycling system. Following this, it’s actually 6 times cheaper to dispose of recycled waste than general refuse, so the higher the levels of recycling, the cheaper the cost to local councils. This would generate a greater budget to allocate towards other social initiatives whether environmental or welfare related. 

Why is recycling more problematic than it is sustainable in practise?

So far, recycling sounds great, right? Unfortunately, recycling isn’t quite so simple in practice as only 45% of household waste – the 26.4 million tonnes of it – actually gets sent for recycling. To be clear, this does not mean that 45% actually is recycled, as this figure doesn’t account for where that waste ends up. 

Since the UK produces more waste than it can process, it has usually exported a great deal of it to other countries and, in effect, has shifted the burden elsewhere. Once exported, the waste is no longer a British problem, and the UK isn’t responsible for ensuring the waste actually is recycled. While the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ method may have been a solution in the past, China largely closed its doors to imported waste in 2018. In 2019, countries including Malaysia, Thailand and India began to announce similar bans on the import of waste. Meanwhile, the amount of waste that gets incinerated in England has been increasing from 10.1 to 10.8 million tonnes in 2017-18. 

The high levels of incineration and the low levels of recycling are partly due to the fact that not all plastic can be recycled, and whether a certain type of plastic is recyclable can differ across councils. Alternatively, some items are contaminatedto the point where they can’t be recycled, with typical examples being food containers or heavily greased pizza boxes. 

pile of paper garbages

What can we do?

While there are many problems with recycling, that is not to say it shouldn’t be done, as to recycle is better than to not recycle at all. But the environmental decisions you make shouldn’t end there.  

Before recycling, always check the labels of packaging to make sure it actually is recyclable. An easy mistake to make is that while a plastic food container may be recyclable, the plastic film rarely is. If you’re unsure of whether something can be recycled, be proactive and look it up online as every council will have clear lists of what is recyclable and where. It will take you five minutes but will prevent the contamination of waste that actually can be recycled. 

As an individual, the best thing you can do is minimise the waste you produce in the first place. Where possible, buy loose fruit and vegetables, avoid unnecessary packaging and carry sustainable alternatives with you such as coffee flasks, reusable bags and a water bottle. Every time you avoid single-use plastic or unnecessary waste, you’re taking a positive step in the right direction. 

So, it’s clear that recycling may not be the forward-thinking, environmental choice it is often paraded to be – in fact, it’s the perfect fallacy for sustainable decision-making. Despite this, you can make the choice to recycle as best as you can, while minimising the waste you actually produce in the first place. Only when we start taking a greater responsibility for the waste, we produce will meaningful, large-scale change actually take place. 

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