What is recycling? What does it involve?
Recycling means turning recoverable parts of waste into materials for making new products. The term can also refer to the process of making new products from recycled materials and to the recoverable waste itself.
Recycling helps to reduce how much potentially valuable material ends up in incinerators or landfill. It also lessens the amount of metal ores, wood, and other substances that we take directly from nature.
Making things from recycled materials also uses less energy than making them from virgin materials.
Top recycling nations
In 2017, the environmental consultancy Eunomia analyzed the recycling performance of different countries They found that the best performers were Germany, Austria, South Korea, and Wales. These countries recycle between 52% and 56% of their municipal solid waste (MSW).
An article by the World Economic Forum explains how the report authors analyzed data from the various countries in order to compare like for like.
For example, while Singapore claimed that they recycled more than 60% of their waste, their figures included industrial and commercial waste. After adjusting for this, the analysis showed that Singapore recycled 34% of their MSW.
The top performing nations have several factors in common that likely account for their pole positions. They have policies that make it easy for householders to recycle their waste. Their governments also fund recycling generously, offer financial incentives, and set clear targets and goals for local governments.
This chart shows the top 10 performing nations and their MSW recycling rates.
An easy way for householders and office workers to get started with recycling is to have two containers in each room. Label one container Recycling, and label the other Trash. Then make sure that everyone knows what goes in each container. One way is to have posters that clearly show this information.
What goes in each container may depend on where you live or work and who collects your waste. Waste Management (WM) Inc., with headquarters in Houston, TX, is North America’s largest recycler. They ask that you only put the following in your Recycling bin:
- Empty plastic bottles and containers.
- Empty glass bottles and containers.
- Food and beverage cans – make sure these are empty too.
- Flattened cardboard and paperboard.
WM’s website offers a range of tools to help homes and businesses get started with recycling. These explain some of the benefits of recycling and what happens to the items.
For example, recycling one aluminum can saves enough energy to power an average television for 2 hours. In addition, that can is likely to be back on the shelf as a new container within 60 days.
Did you know?
Here are some more interesting facts about recycling. They come from a list compiled by Recycle Nation.
- Recycling 1 ton of paper saves: 17 trees, 7,000 gallons (31,823 liters) of water, 380 gallons (1.728 liters) of oil, and 3 cubic yards (2.3 cubic meters) of landfill.
- Making paper from recycled materials also uses a lot less energy than making it from trees.
- Aluminum is a metal that you can recycle again and again.
- Worldwide, we use more than 80 billion aluminum cans per year,
- The energy that goes into making one aluminum can from raw material could make 20 new cans from recycled aluminum.
- Making a plastic bottle from recycled material generates 50% less water pollution and 20% less air pollution.
- The energy saved from making one plastic bottle from recycled instead of virgin material can power a 100-watt light bulb for 4 hours.
Plastic forms a large part of waste. Take the example of plastic bottles. Worldwide, we buy 1 million plastic bottles every minute. Moreover, the vast majority of them end up in the trash.
A lot of packaging also uses plastic. Plastic packaging is efficient and useful; it protects products and keeps them fresh and sanitary. Also, because it is lightweight and strong, plastic allows the shipping of more goods with less packaging than the alternatives.
The material is so useful that we will be producing four times as much of it by 2050 as we do today.
However, throwing away plastic is a disaster for the environment. It takes hundreds of years for the material to break down. Plastic waste clogs up landfill and releases pollutants. It also harms ocean wildlife. Many marine animals are ingesting bits of plastic – some of which ends up in our food.
The need to address the problem of plastic waste has never been greater. We have to vastly increase our rate of plastic recycling. There are two ways to do this: mechanical and advanced recycling.
Mechanical and advanced recycling
Mechanical recycling is the more traditional way of dealing with plastic waste. It typically leaves the chemical composition of the material intact.
The mechanical process involves sorting, cleaning, shredding, and melting the plastic waste. It then extrudes the molten plastic into new forms, such as pellets. Manufacturers use the pellets to make plastic packaging and products.
In contrast, advanced recycling alters the composition of used plastic. The process typically breaks down the material into its original components by dissolving it with chemicals or by heating it up. It does not use heat to burn the plastic like an incinerator does, but to alter its chemistry.
The end products of advanced plastic recycling include: virgin-like plastics, waxes, chemical feedstocks, fuels, specialty chemicals, and basic building blocks or monomers.
Manufacturers can use these as raw materials for making new plastics, fuels, or other goods.
One promising example of advanced recycling is the production of ultra-low sulfur diesel. Using plastic waste to make the fuel instead of petroleum can reduce the consumption of energy by 96% and of water by 58%.
With such methods, the plastics and resin producers of the United States plan to recycle or recover 100% of plastic packaging by 2040. The goal is to move the economy to a more sustainable, circular model that repurposes rather than disposes of used plastic.