In 2021, recycling rates around the world are on the rise but is it the green solution we are really looking for? Read on to find out the surprising impacts recycling has on the planet…
To many, recycling is seen as the saviour to the global waste crisis, an efficient and simple way to reduce our mark on the planet but this is not entirely true. The world generates at least 3.5 million tonnes of plastic and other solid waste a day, ten times more than a century ago and while a lot of this is going to recycling, it is not possible to recycle our way to zero waste. Just looking at the waste hierarchy, recycling is a middle ground, a preferable option to landfill or incineration but still not as beneficial for the planet as reducing our waste. Here are some of the reasons recycling is not as green as you may think:
High Energy Consumption
Recycling plants need fuel to work. This results in a high energy consumption and with recycling rates on the rise, this will only increase in the future. Obviously recycling saves more energy than sending waste straight to landfill, but think of the savings if we reduced consumption! In the example of paper, recycling the product uses fossil fuels which contribute to greenhouse gases; whereas production of virgin paper employs waste products from timber to supply energy requirements.
It is a myth that by recycling one plastic bottle another entirely new one will be created as recycling is not yet an efficient process. This is because some products have a short recycling life-time and thus materials are rapidly downgraded. As a result they cannot be used in energy recovery and end up going to landfill; the exact outcome recycling strives to avoid. For example paper can only be recycled five-to-seven times before the fibres holding it together end up too weak to bind. Furthermore those products created from recycled materials often have a far shorter life span and degrade, thus it may often be environmentally friendly to purchase one expensive long lasting product than the cost of producing and recycling numerous ones.
The initial costs of investment and building infrastructure can be outstanding and this is commonly why many developing countries have struggled to implement a nationwide recycling initiative such as Indonesia. After the initial build, the process itself is high cost, in New York it costs $300 more to process one tonne of recycling than it would to take it to landfill. This money could be more usefully invested in education and zero-waste schemes.
Exports to Asia
Germany is frequently hailed the recycling king with 97% of plastic and glass bottles now recycled in the region. However this fact is misleading when you learn they export 69% of this abroad in an ‘out of sight out of mind’ attitude.This not only creates emissions from the recycling processes but also the transportation of waste thousands of miles from European countries and USA. In 2016 China processed 7.3 million tonnes of world plastic, paper and metal, however in 2018 they banned acceptance of ‘foreign garbage’ in a bid to clean up their own environmental footprint. Now most of the exports are channeled to Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam.
When recycling products containing inks and dyes such as newspapers, lots of chemicals and detergents need to be used to remove these. This waste all too often enters streams and contains copper, lead and zinc. This can be highly detrimental to marine life such as fish and through bioaccumulation may lead to poisoning of humans.
Many argue that recycling encourages consumption. When customers see a product that is made from recycled goods it sends a message that this is okay to buy as it is part of an environmentally friendly process, whereas the message that should be sent is to reduce consumption and only buy necessities. The same phenomenon is exploited by businesses who claim to be ‘zero waste’ when really they are ‘zero-waste to landfill’, thus none of their waste goes to landfill but instead is recycled or incinerated for energy recovery. This includes companies such as Toyota and Unilever and makes it easy for them to set diversion targets and focus on recycling rather than waste minimisation, the more environmentally friendly option.
We do not mean to discredit recycling, yes it is something useful in society and a far better alternative from landfill. But the worry is people will think because they recycle they are already doing enough to help the planet which is not true. It is important to move away from advertising recyclable products and move ahead to initiatives of zero waste such as investing in reusable bottles and food containers, saying no to a plastic shopping bag and giving back to local food shelters instead of throwing away items as waste. If people around the world adopted these activities into their lifestyle the world would be far better off than if we simply increase the rate of recycling.
At Green-Books.org it is our mission to educate Indonesian children on the natural systems that make life on earth possible and inspire them to live sustainably. Through our Zero Waste School Program we make them understand waste management as it is one of the largest problems Indonesia faces in the 21st century. Help us achieve our goal by sharing online and making a donation here.
Co-written by Holly McElroy