The trash bin is overflowing again! Have you noticed how often we have to take out the trash to the containers? It’s crazy, right? Every time we buy something we are producing waste. Does it make sense?
If you are one of those thinking “I’ve got to do something!”, but you don’t know where to start, I have good news for you. You have already started. Your commitment is the first step!
What is recycling?
We might think that the concept of recycling is the same anywhere in the world. Well, definitions are pretty similar, but they are not exactly the same.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA), recycling is the process of collecting and processing materials that would otherwise be thrown away as trash and turning them into new products.
The European Environment Agency (EEA) defines recycling of waste as any recovery operation by which waste materials are reprocessed into products, materials or substances whether for the original or other purposes. It includes the reprocessing of organic material but does not include energy recovery and the reprocessing into materials that are to be used as fuels or for backfilling operations.
So, Waste to Energy facilities are outside of the recycling range according to the second definition.
Why is recycling important?
Supposedly, the times of “Earth is so big that it can take anything” are gone. We all know today that unless we take it seriously, we will end up surrounded by plastics and other wastes.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, more than one third of natural resources in Earth were consumed in the last 30 years. And the consumption rate is increasing, causing that we are literally taking more from the Earth than it can provide.
According to the World Bank, we create more than 2 billion metric tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) per year worldwide. This figure could almost be doubled by 2050. Around 40% of this waste is not properly managed, causing all kind of environmental problems, air quality deterioration and water pollution.
Rich countries generate more than 36% of total MSW, while representing only 15% of the global population. This is because ratios per capita are 4 times bigger in these countries compared to poor regions.
The most terrifying case is the generation of plastic. In only 6 decades, we have produced 8,3 billion metric tons of plastic. Only 9% of those were recycled. The rest was placed in landfills, incinerated or littered. More than 8 million metric tons ends up in the oceans every year.
Reduce, reuse & recycle
By reducing, reusing and recycling you can help your community. You contribute to save money, energy and natural resources. This is not only good for you and your community, but also for the environment, and the Earth.
If you don’t create waste, you automatically reduce the need of reusing and recycling. We need natural resources in form of materials and energy to produce every new item for consumption. By reducing and reusing we are saving natural resources. Remember that you can help others by selling or donating your unwanted stuff.
Recycling in numbers
According to US EPA, around 268 million tons of MSW were generated in USA in 2017. More than 52% of that amount ended up at landfills. In that year, only 35% of the waste was recycled or composted, and 13% was combusted with energy recovery.
It is very interesting to know that every 1,000 tons of recycled material generates in USA 1.57 jobs, $76,000 in wages, and $14,101 in tax revenues.
Across the pond, the EEA and Eurostat report that 250 million metric tons were produced in the European Union (EU) during the same year. Out of that amount, more than 23% was landfilled, 46% was recycled or composted, and 28% was combusted.
The EU is changing the approach to waste management, considering MSW as a resource. The 7th Environmental Action Programme states that ‘recycled waste should be used as a major, reliable source of raw material for the EU, through the development of non-toxic material cycles’. It is a very positive tendency towards a more circular economy, but still there is a long way to go.
Steps to recycling materials
Recycling is a global process. It begins and ends with the engagement of individuals.
Collection & processing
First thing we need to do to recycle is collection. Here is where individuals play a very important role. By dropping your recyclables inside the curbside collection containers, you allow the whole process to start. You can also use drop-off centers or refund programs.
Once the recyclable waste is collected, it is sent to a processing plant, where it is separated and classified. Finally, recycled materials are sold to producers.
Producers use recycled materials to create their products. Zero-waste policies are becoming more and more popular. Many of the most important companies in the world are embracing this trend.
Purchasing new products made from recycled materials
Yes, individuals playing the main role again. When you buy products made of recycled materials, you are feeding-back the recycling process. It is also important to check that you buy products which can be easily recycled.
Single vs Dual Stream
Many people are a bit confused when it comes to know what can be recycled and what cannot. There are two main systems of recycling: single stream and dual stream.
This system became very popular in USA due to the advantages for individuals and trash haulers. It is known as “easy recycling” because it is more comfortable for the individuals. You can place all recyclables in one container. People don’t have to separate paper, cardboard, plastic, glass and metal. Additionally, collection companies can reduce costs, because less people are needed. These factors could cause an increase in participation. But, does it come with more real recycling?
All these collected materials are supposed to be processed. And here comes the problem. Many materials that could be recycled are contaminated with food, pieces of glasses, greases, and other contaminants. If an unaccepted material or trash ends up in the bin, the entire load must be disposed of at a landfill for contamination. According to the National Waste & Recycling Association of U.S., around 25% of waste disposed inside the recycling containers is contaminated.
So, what is the point of recycling if at the end a big share of materials gets contaminated in the process? Recycling has been immersed in big controversy. After a long period of social education and cooperation, some people got discouraged with recycling. They were wondering if what we are recycling is getting really recycled. Some very high-profile cases of recycling fraud didn’t help.
Recycling is also a global issue. For many years, USA was sending millions of tons of recycled MSW to China. But the Asian country has recently changed their policy and standards for most of recyclables. It turned out that majority of USA supposedly recycled MSW is not good enough. Now many municipalities have to face a big dilemma with their recycling: higher prices to achieve the new quality standards or landfill it all (I guess no municipality would knowingly litter). People in America will have to face the situation and get 100% engaged. It is easy to find excuses. It is too expensive, it is not convenient. Bla, bla, bla. New challenges always come with new opportunities.
This system is based on source separated recycling. It means that individuals have to divide recyclables in different containers. This method brings maximum efficiency to recycling processes. Dual stream has been broadly adopted in EU.
Dual stream doesn’t work without the engagement of individuals (single stream neither). On the very positive side, it brings much better recycling ratios than the single stream.
Recycling labels and symbols
This is all about what kind of world you want for your children. Former UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon once said “There can be no Plan B because there is no planet B”. I couldn’t express it better.
For those who still say that we can’t afford recycling, I would like to say that what we really can’t afford is a new planet. Recycling is very cheap from that perspective.
The progress in recycling during the last 25 years has been amazing, but we still have lot of things to improve. Let’s lead this positive tendency!