The act of recycling forms an integral part of our transition towards a more sustainable future. But when the systems we’ve created aren’t functioning as they should, even something as ecologically conscious as recycling can cause some problems along the way.
Part of what prevents recycling from reaching its full environmental potential is the lack of education surrounding it. You can learn more by taking a closer look at recycling’s real impact—and why you should keep at it, regardless.
The Reality Of Recycling
Over the past few years, there has been some controversy about whether or not recycling is really delivering the impact it claims to. But just like with anything in life, there are both correct and incorrect ways to go about the practice of recycling.
According to the National Waste Recycling Association, one of the biggest reasons (25% overall) behind ineffective recycling systems is contamination—the result of putting dirty or improper goods into recycling bins.
Items like greasy pizza boxes and used coffee pods are often chucked into recycling bins, contaminating the other objects around them and rendering an entire batch of would-be recycled goods unusable.
Another problem facing the recycling system is the fact that we’re producing plastic at a rate that surpasses how quickly we recycle it. Presently, over 300 million tons of plastic are being produced every year, while less than 10% of that number is actually getting recycled.
Presently, the lack of awareness around how to recycle properly is one of the biggest threats facing the recycling system as a whole. When people aren’t sure of what can get recycled and how to accurately categorize their waste, it significantly reduces the effectiveness of our collective efforts.
Recycling And Resources
In addition to contamination and plastic production issues, we have resources to consider. But even though the process of recycling does require energy to maintain, the amount it saves far outweighs it.
For recycling to meet the standard of being “energy efficient”, the amount of energy used for recycling needs to be less than the amount of energy needed to process new materials—and it passes that test with flying colors.
The easiest way to measure how much energy is saved through recycling is to compare the number of natural resources used during the manufacturing process of new versus recycled products.
For example, one ton of aluminum cans made from recycled materials saves 21,000-kilowatt hours of energy compared to a ton of non-recycled aluminum cans. That’s an energy savings rate of 95%.
A survey from the Steel Recycling Institute found that recycling steel conserves enough electricity to power the equivalent of over 18 million homes per year. Another found that just one ton of recycled glass saves 10.9 million BTUs of energy, 1.8 barrels of oil, and as much as 4 cubic yards of landfill space.
No matter which products and their respective resource consumption rate you look at, recycling plays an unequivocal role in saving and conserving natural resources.
How Much Energy Is Used To Recycle?
Some people are skeptical about the effectiveness of recycling due to the lack of data available on how much energy it takes to process. It’s hard to capture information on how much energy recycling uses because different materials require vastly different recycling process methods.
However, there are several studies that indicate that despite not being able to track the exact energetic consumption rate of recycling processes, the benefits far outweigh anything else.
The sheer quantity of resources saved through using recycled materials to build new products is so high that recycling would have to produce more CO2 than the entire automobile industry to have an adverse effect on the environment.
Besides, one of the main goals of recycling is to reduce the amount of waste in our landfills.
The greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that landfills produce are even worse than regular carbon dioxide. GHG contains a much higher level of methane, which has a significantly more toxic impact on the environment. According to a 2022 report from the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the US alone produces 103 million metric tons of methane annually.
The more we recycle, the more we can reduce the amount of waste getting dumped in landfills that are accelerating the destruction of the environment.
Why You Should Still Recycle
Despite the issues that arise from a lack of awareness around recycling protocols, there are still plenty of positive impacts that make it worth committing to.
If you aren’t sure about whether an item can get recycled or not, it’s important to do your research. Although many brands have moved towards more eco-friendly or biodegradable packaging, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you can still recycle everything in the same way. For example, mixing biodegradable plastic with regular plastic can contaminate a whole batch of recyclables, leading to additional pollution.
In addition to recycling, there are other things we can do to diminish our impact on the environment. Teaching your friends and family about our waste problem and how to recycle properly and letting big corporations know you care about their waste management efforts all make a difference.
Overall, one of the most important things you can do is take responsibility for your waste management system and aim to adopt a low-consumption or zero waste lifestyle. Recycling is the last resort.