What Is Recycling?
Recycling is the process of converting waste materials into new materials and objects. It is an alternative to “conventional” waste disposal that can save material and help lower greenhouse gas emissions. Recycling can prevent the waste of potentially useful materials and reduce the consumption of fresh raw materials, thereby reducing: energy usage, air pollution (from incineration), and water pollution (from landfilling).
Recycling is a key component of modern waste reduction and is the third component of the “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle” waste hierarchy. Thus, recycling aims at environmental sustainability by substituting rarecyclable materials, recyclate, landfill, recycling, waste, Curbside collection, E-waste recycling, w material inputs into and redirecting waste outputs out of the economic system.
There are some ISO standards related to recycling such as ISO 15270:2008 for plastics waste and ISO 14001:2015 for environmental management control of recycling practice.
Recyclable materials include many kinds of glass, paper, cardboard, metal, plastic, tires, textiles, batteries, and electronics. The composting or other reuse of biodegradable waste—such as food or garden waste—is also a form of recycling. Materials to be recycled are either delivered to a household recycling center or picked up from curbside bins, then sorted, cleaned, and reprocessed into new materials destined for manufacturing new products.
In the strictest sense, recycling of a material would produce a fresh supply of the same material—for example, used office paper would be converted into new office paper or used polystyrene foam into new polystyrene. This is accomplished when recycling certain types of materials, such as metal cans, which can become a can again and again, infinitely, without losing purity in the product. However, this is often difficult or too expensive (compared with producing the same product from raw materials or other sources), so “recycling” of many products or materials involves their reuse in producing different materials (for example, paperboard) instead. Another form of recycling is the salvage of certain materials from complex products, either due to their intrinsic value (such as lead from car batteries, or gold from printed circuit boards), or due to their hazardous nature (e.g., removal and reuse of mercury from thermometers and thermostats).
Recycling has been a common practice for most of human history, with recorded advocates as far back as Plato in the fourth century BC. During periods when resources were scarce and hard to come by, archaeological studies of ancient waste dumps show less household waste (such as ash, broken tools, and pottery)—implying more waste was being recycled in the absence of new material.
In pre-industrial times, there is evidence of scrap bronze and other metals being collected in Europe and melted down for perpetual reuse. Paper recycling was first recorded in 1031 when Japanese shops sold repulped paper. In Britain dust and ash from wood and coal fires was collected by “dustmen” and downcycled as a base material used in brick making. The main driver for these types of recycling was the economic advantage of obtaining recycled feedstock instead of acquiring virgin material, as well as a lack of public waste removal in ever more densely populated areas. In 1813, Benjamin Law developed the process of turning rags into “shoddy” and “mungo” wool in Batley, Yorkshire. This material combined recycled fibers with virgin wool. The West Yorkshire shoddy industry in towns such as Batley and Dewsbury lasted from the early 19th century to at least 1914.
Industrialization spurred demand for affordable materials; aside from rags, ferrous scrap metals were coveted as they were cheaper to acquire than virgin ore. Railroads both purchased and sold scrap metal in the 19th century, and the growing steel and automobile industries purchased scrap in the early 20th century. Many secondary goods were collected, processed and sold by peddlers who scoured dumps and city streets for discarded machinery, pots, pans, and other sources of metal. By World War I, thousands of such peddlers roamed the streets of American cities, taking advantage of market forces to recycle post-consumer materials back into industrial production.
Beverage bottles were recycled with a refundable deposit at some drink manufacturers in Great Britain and Ireland around 1800, notably Schweppes. An official recycling system with refundable deposits was established in Sweden for bottles in 1884 and aluminum beverage cans in 1982; the law led to a recycling rate for beverage containers of 84–99 percent depending on type, and a glass bottle can be refilled over 20 times on average.
New chemical industries created in the late 19th century both invented new materials (e.g. Bakelite ) and promised to transform valueless into valuable materials. Proverbially, you could not make a silk purse of a sow’s ear—until the US firm Arthur D. Little published in 1921 “On the Making of Silk Purses from Sows’ Ears”, its research proving that when “chemistry puts on overalls and gets down to business … new values appear. New and better paths are opened to reach the goals desired.”
Recycling (or “salvage”, as it was then usually known) was a major issue for governments throughout World War II. Financial constraints and significant material shortages due to war efforts made it necessary for countries to reuse goods and recycle materials. These resource shortages caused by the world wars, and other such world-changing occurrences, greatly encouraged recycling. The struggles of war claimed much of the material resources available, leaving little for the civilian population. It became necessary for most homes to recycle their waste, as recycling offered an extra source of materials allowing people to make the most of what was available to them. Recycling household materials meant more resources for war efforts and a better chance of victory. Massive government promotion campaigns, such as the National Salvage Campaign in Britain and the Salvage for Victorycampaign in the United States, were carried out on the home front in every combative nation, urging citizens to donate metal, paper, rags, and rubber as a matter of patriotism.
Post-World War II
A considerable investment in recycling occurred in the 1970s, due to rising energy costs. Recycling aluminum uses only 5% of the energy required by virgin production; glass, paper and other metals have less dramatic but very significant energy savings when recycled feedstock is used.
Although consumer electronics such as the television have been popular since the 1920s, recycling of them was almost unheard of until early 1991. The first electronic waste recycling scheme was implemented in Switzerland, beginning with collection of old refrigerators but gradually expanding to cover all devices. After these schemes were set up, many countries did not have the capacity to deal with the sheer quantity of e-waste they generated or its hazardous nature. They began to export the problem to developing countries without enforced environmental legislation. This is cheaper, as recycling computer monitors in the United States costs 10 times more than in China. Demand in Asia for electronic waste began to grow when scrap yards found that they could extract valuable substances such as copper, silver, iron, silicon, nickel, and gold, during the recycling process. The 2000s saw a large increase in both the sale of electronic devices and their growth as a waste stream: in 2002, e-waste grew faster than any other type of waste in the EU. This caused investment in modern, automated facilities to cope with the influx of redundant appliances, especially after strict laws were implemented in 2003.
As of 2014, the European Union had about 50% of world share of the waste and recycling industries, with over 60,000 companies employing 500,000 persons, with a turnover of €24 billion. Countries have to reach recycling rates of at least 50%, while the lead countries were around 65% and the EU average was 39% as of 2013. The EU average has been rising steadily, to 45% in 2015.
In 2018, changes in the recycling market have sparked a global “crisis” in the industry. On December 31, 2017, China announced its “National Sword” policy, setting new standards for imports of recyclable material and banning materials that were deemed too “dirty” or “hazardous”. The new policy caused drastic disruptions in the global market in recycling and reduced the prices of scrap plastic and low-grade paper. Exports of recyclable materials from G7 countries to China dropped dramatically, with many exports shifting to countries in southeast Asia. The crisis generated significant concern about the practices and environmental sustainability of the recycling industry. The abrupt shift caused countries to accept more recyclable materials than they could process, raising fundamental questions about shipping recycling waste from economically developed countries to countries with few environmental regulations—a practice that predated the crisis.
For a recycling program to work, having a large, stable supply of recyclable material is crucial. Three legislative options have been used to create such a supply: mandatory recycling collection, container deposit legislation, and refuse bans. Mandatory collection laws set recycling targets for cities to aim for, usually in the form that a certain percentage of a material must be diverted from the city’s waste stream by a target date. The city is then responsible for working to meet this target.
Container deposit legislation involves offering a refund for the return of certain containers, typically glass, plastic, and metal. When a product in such a container is purchased, a small surcharge is added to the price. This surcharge can be reclaimed by the consumer if the container is returned to a collection point. These programs have been very successful, often resulting in an 80 percent recycling rate. Despite such good results, the shift in collection costs from local government to industry and consumers has created strong opposition to the creation of such programs in some areas. A variation on this is where the manufacturer bears responsibility for the recycling of their goods. In the European Union, the WEEE Directive requires producers of consumer electronics to reimburse the recyclers’ costs.
An alternative way to increase the supply of recyclates is to ban the disposal of certain materials as waste, often including used oil, old batteries, tires, and garden waste. One aim of this method is to create a viable economy for proper disposal of banned products. Care must be taken that enough of these recycling services exist, or such bans simply lead to increased illegal dumping.
Legislation has also been used to increase and maintain a demand for recycled materials. Four methods of such legislation exist: minimum recycled content mandates, utilization rates, procurement policies, and recycled product labeling.
Both minimum recycled content mandates and utilization rates increase demand directly by forcing manufacturers to include recycling in their operations. Content mandates specify that a certain percentage of a new product must consist of recycled material. Utilization rates are a more flexible option: industries are permitted to meet the recycling targets at any point of their operation or even contract recycling out in exchange for tradeable credits. Opponents to both of these methods point to the large increase in reporting requirements they impose, and claim that they rob the industry of necessary flexibility.
Governments have used their own purchasing power to increase recycling demand through what are called “procurement policies”. These policies are either “set-asides”, which reserve a certain amount of spending solely towards recycled products, or “price preference” programs which provide a larger budget when recycled items are purchased. Additional regulations can target specific cases: in the United States, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency mandates the purchase of oil, paper, tires and building insulation from recycled or re-refined sources whenever possible.
The final government regulation towards increased demand is recycled product labeling. When producers are required to label their packaging with amount of recycled material in the product (including the packaging), consumers are better able to make educated choices. Consumers with sufficient buying power can then choose more environmentally conscious options, prompt producers to increase the amount of recycled material in their products, and indirectly increase demand. Standardized recycling labeling can also have a positive effect on supply of recyclates if the labeling includes information on how and where the product can be recycled.
Quality of recyclate
The quality of recyclates is recognized as one of the principal challenges that needs to be addressed for the success of a long-term vision of a green economy and achieving zero waste. Recyclate quality is generally referring to how much of the raw material is made up of target material compared to the amount of non-target material and other non-recyclable material. For example, steel and metal are materials with a higher recyclate quality. It’s estimated that two thirds of all new steel manufactured comes from recycled steel. Only target material is likely to be recycled, so a higher amount of non-target and non-recyclable material will reduce the quantity of recycling product. A high proportion of non-target and non-recyclable material can make it more difficult for re-processors to achieve “high-quality” recycling. If the recyclate is of poor quality, it is more likely to end up being down-cycled or, in more extreme cases, sent to other recovery options or landfilled. For example, to facilitate the re-manufacturing of clear glass products there are tight restrictions for colored glass going into the re-melt process. Another example is the downcycling of plastic, in which products such as plastic food packaging are often downcycled into lower quality products, and do not get recycled into the same plastic food packaging.
The quality of recyclate not only supports high-quality recycling, but it can also deliver significant environmental benefits by reducing, reusing and keeping products out of landfills. High-quality recycling can help support growth in the economy by maximizing the economic value of the waste material collected. Higher income levels from the sale of quality recyclates can return value which can be significant to local governments, households, and businesses. Pursuing high-quality recycling can also provide consumer and business confidence in the waste and resource management sector and may encourage investment in that sector.
There are many actions along the recycling supply chain that can influence and affect the material quality of recyclate. It begins with the waste producers who place non-target and non-recyclable wastes in recycling collection. This can affect the quality of final recyclate streams or require further efforts to discard those materials at later stages in the recycling process. The different collection systems can result in different levels of contamination. Depending on which materials are collected together, extra effort is required to sort this material back into separate streams and can significantly reduce the quality of the final product. Transportation and the compaction of materials can make it more difficult to separate material back into separate waste streams. Sorting facilities are not one hundred per cent effective in separating materials, despite improvements in technology and quality recyclate which can see a loss in recyclate quality. The storage of materials outside, where the product can become wet, can cause problems for re-processors. Reprocessing facilities may require further sorting steps to further reduce the amount of non-target and non-recyclable material. Each action along the recycling path plays a part in the quality of recyclate.
Quality recyclate action plan (Scotland)
The Recyclate Quality Action Plan of Scotland sets out a number of proposed actions that the Scottish Government would like to take forward in order to drive up the quality of the materials being collected for recycling and sorted at materials recovery facilities before being exported or sold on to the reprocessing market.
The plan’s objectives are to:
- Drive up the quality of recyclate
- Deliver greater transparency about the quality of recyclate
- Provide help to those contracting with materials recycling facilities to identify what is required of them
- Ensure compliance with the Waste (Scotland) regulations 2012
- Stimulate a household market for quality recyclate
- Address and reduce issues surrounding the Waste Shipment Regulations
The plan focuses on three key areas, with fourteen actions which were identified to increase the quality of materials collected, sorted and presented to the processing market in Scotland.
The three areas of focus are:
- Collection systems and input contamination
- Sorting facilities – material sampling and transparency
- Material quality benchmarking and standards
Recycling consumer waste
Curbside collection encompasses many subtly different systems, which differ mostly on where in the process the recyclates are sorted and cleaned. The main categories are mixed waste collection, commingled recyclables, and source separation. A waste collection vehicle generally picks up the waste.
At one end of the spectrum is mixed waste collection, in which all recyclates are collected mixed in with the rest of the waste, and the desired material is then sorted out and cleaned at a central sorting facility. This results in a large amount of recyclable waste, paper especially, being too soiled to reprocess, but has advantages as well: the city need not pay for a separate collection of recyclates and no public education is needed. Any changes to which materials are recyclable is easy to accommodate as all sorting happens in a central location.
In a commingled or single-stream system, all recyclables for collection are mixed but kept separate from other waste. This greatly reduces the need for post-collection cleaning but does require public education on what materials are recyclable.
Source separation is the other extreme, where each material is cleaned and sorted prior to collection. This method requires the least post-collection sorting and produces the purest recyclates, but incurs additional operating costs for collection of each separate material. An extensive public education program is also required, which must be successful if recyclate contamination is to be avoided. In Oregon, USA, its environmental authority Oregon DEQ surveyed multi-family property managers and about half of them reported problems including contamination of recyclables due to trespassers such as transients gaining access to the collection areas.
Source separation used to be the preferred method due to the high sorting costs incurred by commingled (mixed waste) collection. However, advances in sorting technology have lowered this overhead substantially. Many areas which had developed source separation programs have since switched to what is called co-mingled collection.
In the US, the value per ton of mixed recyclables was $180 in 2011, $80 in 2015, and $100 in 2017.
In 2017, glass is essentially valueless, because of the low cost of sand, its major component; low oil costs thwarts plastic recycling.
In 2017, Napa, California was reimbursed about 20% of its costs in recycling.
Drop-off centers require the waste producer to carry the recyclates to a central location, either an installed or mobile collection station or the reprocessing plant itself. They are the easiest type of collection to establish but suffer from low and unpredictable throughput.
For some waste materials such as plastic, recent technical devices called recyclebots enable a form of distributed recycling. Preliminary life-cycle analysis (LCA) indicates that such distributed recycling of HDPE to make filament of 3D printers in rural regions is energetically favorable to either using virgin resin or conventional recycling processes because of reductions in transportation energy.
Initially, the commingled recyclates are removed from the collection vehicle and placed on a conveyor belt spread out in a single layer. Large pieces of corrugated fiberboardand plastic bags are removed by hand at this stage, as they can cause later machinery to jam.
Strong magnets are used to separate out ferrous metals, such as iron, steel, and tin cans. Non-ferrous metals are ejected by magnetic eddy currents in which a rotating magnetic field induces an electric current around the aluminum cans, which in turn creates a magnetic eddy current inside the cans. This magnetic eddy current is repulsed by a large magnetic field, and the cans are ejected from the rest of the recyclate stream.
This process of recycling as well as reusing the recycled material has proven advantageous because it reduces amount of waste sent to landfills, conserves natural resources, saves energy, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and helps create new jobs. Recycled materials can also be converted into new products that can be consumed again, such as paper, plastic, and glass.
The City and County of San Francisco’s Department of the Environment is attempting to achieve a citywide goal of generating zero waste by 2020. San Francisco’s refuse hauler, Recology, operates an effective recyclables sorting facility which helped the city reach a record-breaking diversion rate of 80%.
Recycling industrial waste
The glass, lumber, wood pulp and paper manufacturers all deal directly in commonly recycled materials; however, old rubber tires may be collected and recycled by independent tire dealers for a profit.
Levels of metals recycling are generally low. In 2010, the International Resource Panel, hosted by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) published reports on metal stocks that exist within society and their recycling rates. The Panel reported that the increase in the use of metals during the 20th and into the 21st century has led to a substantial shift in metal stocks from below ground to use in applications within society above ground. For example, the in-use stock of copper in the USA grew from 73 to 238 kg per capita between 1932 and 1999.
The report authors observed that, as metals are inherently recyclable, the metal stocks in society can serve as huge mines above ground (the term “urban mining” has been coined with this idea in mind). However, they found that the recycling rates of many metals are very low. The report warned that the recycling rates of some rare metals used in applications such as mobile phones, battery packs for hybrid cars and fuel cells, are so low that unless future end-of-life recycling rates are dramatically stepped up these critical metals will become unavailable for use in modern technology.
The military recycles some metals. The U.S. Navy’s Ship Disposal Program uses ship breaking to reclaim the steel of old vessels. Ships may also be sunk to create an artificial reef. Uranium is a very dense metal that has qualities superior to lead and titanium for many military and industrial uses. The uranium left over from processing it into nuclear weapons and fuel for nuclear reactors is called depleted uranium, and is used by all branches of the U.S. military for the development of such things as armour-piercing shells and shielding.
The construction industry may recycle concrete and old road surface pavement, selling their waste materials for profit.
Some industries, like the renewable energy industry and solar photovoltaic technology, in particular, are being proactive in setting up recycling policies even before there is considerable volume to their waste streams, anticipating future demand during their rapid growth.
Recycling of plastics is more difficult, as most programs are not able to reach the necessary level of quality. Recycling of PVC often results in downcycling of the material, which means only products of lower quality standard can be made with the recycled material. A new approach which allows an equal level of quality is the Vinyloop process. It was used after the London Olympics 2012 to fulfill the PVC Policy.
In the recycling process, television sets, monitors, cell phones, and computers are typically tested for reuse and repaired. If broken, they may be disassembled for parts still having high value if labor is cheap enough. Other e-waste is shredded to pieces roughly 10 centimetres (3.9 in) in size, and manually checked to separate out toxic batteries and capacitors which contain poisonous metals. The remaining pieces are further shredded to 10 millimetres (0.39 in) particles and passed under a magnet to remove ferrous metals. An eddy current ejects non-ferrous metals, which are sorted by density either by a centrifuge or vibrating plates. Precious metals can be dissolved in acid, sorted, and smelted into ingots. The remaining glass and plastic fractions are separated by density and sold to re-processors. Television sets and monitors must be manually disassembled to remove lead from CRTs or the mercury backlight from LCDs.
Plastic recycling is the process of recovering scrap or waste plastic and reprocessing the material into useful products, sometimes completely different in form from their original state. For instance, this could mean melting down soft drink bottles and then casting them as plastic chairs and tables. For some types of plastic, the same piece of plastic can only be recycled about 2-3 times before its quality decreases to the point where it can no longer be used.
Some plastics are remelted to form new plastic objects; for example, PET water bottles can be converted into polyester destined for clothing. A disadvantage of this type of recycling is that the molecular weight of the polymer can change further and the levels of unwanted substances in the plastic can increase with each remelt.
For some polymers, it is possible to convert them back into monomers, for example, PET can be treated with an alcohol and a catalyst to form a dialkyl terephthalate. The terephthalate diester can be used with ethylene glycol to form a new polyester polymer, thus making it possible to use the pure polymer again. In 2019, Eastman Chemical Company announced initiatives of methanolysis and syngas designed to handle a greater variety of used material.
Waste plastic pyrolysis to fuel oil
Another process involves the conversion of assorted polymers into petroleum by a much less precise thermal depolymerization process. Such a process would be able to accept almost any polymer or mix of polymers, including thermoset materials such as vulcanized rubber tires and the biopolymers in feathers and other agricultural waste. Like natural petroleum, the chemicals produced can be used as fuels or as feedstock. A RESEM Technology plant of this type in Carthage, Missouri, US, uses turkey waste as input material. Gasification is a similar process but is not technically recycling since polymers are not likely to become the result. Plastic Pyrolysis can convert petroleum based waste streams such as plastics into quality fuels, carbons. Given below is the list of suitable plastic raw materials for pyrolysis:
- Mixed plastic (HDPE, LDPE, PE, PP, Nylon, Teflon, PS, ABS, FRP, etc.)
- Mixed waste plastic from waste paper mill
- Multi-layered plastic
The product’s manufacturing phase, which consists of material processing and fabrication, forms the production-waste recycling loop. Industrial waste materials are fed back into, and reused in, the same production process.
The product’s disposal process requires two recycling loops: product recycling and material recycling. The product or product parts are reused in the product recycling phase. This happens in one of two ways: the product is used retaining the product functionality (“reuse”) or the product continues to be used but with altered functionality (“further use”). The product design is unmodified, or only slightly modified, in both scenarios.
Product disassembly requires material recycling where product materials are recovered and recycled. Ideally, the materials are processed so they can flow back into the production process.
Plastic products are printed with numbers 1–7 depending on the type of resin. Type 1 (polyethylene terephthalate) is commonly found in soft drink and water bottles. Type 2 (high-density polyethylene) is found in most hard plastics such as milk jugs, laundry detergent bottles, and some dishware. Type 3 (polyvinyl chloride) includes items such as shampoo bottles, shower curtains, hula hoops, credit cards, wire jacketing, medical equipment, siding, and piping. Type 4 (low-density polyethylene) is found in shopping bags, squeezable bottles, tote bags, clothing, furniture, and carpet. Type 5 is polypropylene and makes up syrup bottles, straws, Tupperware, and some automotive parts. Type 6 is polystyrene and makes up meat trays, egg cartons, clamshell containers, and compact disc cases. Type 7 includes all other plastics such as bulletproof materials, 3- and 5-gallon water bottles, cell phone and tablet frames, safety goggles and sunglasses. Having a recycling code or the chasing arrows logo on a material is not an automatic indicator that a material is recyclable but rather an explanation of what the material is. Types 1 and 2 are the most commonly recycled.
Trade in recyclates
Certain countries trade in unprocessed recyclates. Some have complained that the ultimate fate of recyclates sold to another country is unknown and they may end up in landfills instead of being reprocessed. According to one report, in America, 50–80 percent of computers destined for recycling are actually not recycled. There are reports of illegal-waste imports to China being dismantled and recycled solely for monetary gain, without consideration for workers’ health or environmental damage. Although the Chinese government has banned these practices, it has not been able to eradicate them. In 2008, the prices of recyclable waste plummeted before rebounding in 2009. Cardboard averaged about £53/tonne from 2004 to 2008, dropped to £19/tonne, and then went up to £59/tonne in May 2009. PET plastic averaged about £156/tonne, dropped to £75/tonne and then moved up to £195/tonne in May 2009.
Certain regions have difficulty using or exporting as much of a material as they recycle. This problem is most prevalent with glass: both Britain and the U.S. import large quantities of wine bottled in green glass. Though much of this glass is sent to be recycled, outside the American Midwest there is not enough wine production to use all of the reprocessed material. The extra must be downcycled into building materials or re-inserted into the regular waste stream.
Similarly, the northwestern United States has difficulty finding markets for recycled newspaper, given the large number of pulp mills in the region as well as the proximity to Asian markets. In other areas of the U.S., however, demand for used newsprint has seen wide fluctuation.
In some U.S. states, a program called RecycleBank pays people to recycle, receiving money from local municipalities for the reduction in landfill space which must be purchased. It uses a single stream process in which all material is automatically sorted.
Criticisms and responses
Critics dispute the net economic and environmental benefits of recycling over its costs, and suggest that proponents of recycling often make matters worse and suffer from confirmation bias. Specifically, critics argue that the costs and energy used in collection and transportation detract from (and outweigh) the costs and energy saved in the production process; also that the jobs produced by the recycling industry can be a poor trade for the jobs lost in logging, mining, and other industries associated with production; and that materials such as paper pulp can only be recycled a few times before material degradation prevents further recycling.
Much of the difficulty inherent in recycling comes from the fact that most products are not designed with recycling in mind. The concept of sustainable design aims to solve this problem, and was laid out in the book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart. They suggest that every product (and all packaging it requires) should have a complete “closed-loop” cycle mapped out for each component—a way in which every component will either return to the natural ecosystem through biodegradation or be recycled indefinitely.
Complete recycling is impossible from a practical standpoint. In summary, substitution and recycling strategies only delay the depletion of non-renewable stocks and therefore may buy time in the transition to true or strong sustainability, which ultimately is only guaranteed in an economy based on renewable resources.:21— M.H. Huesemann, 2003
While recycling diverts waste from entering directly into landfill sites, current recycling misses the dissipative components. Complete recycling is impracticable as highly dispersed wastes become so diluted that the energy needed for their recovery becomes increasingly excessive. “For example, how will it ever be possible to recycle the numerous chlorinated organic hydrocarbons that have bioaccumulated in animal and human tissues across the globe, the copper dispersed in fungicides, the lead in widely applied paints, or the zinc oxides present in the finely dispersed rubber powder that is abraded from automobile tires?”:260
As with environmental economics, care must be taken to ensure a complete view of the costs and benefits involved. For example, paperboard packaging for food products is more easily recycled than most plastic, but is heavier to ship and may result in more waste from spoilage.
Energy and material flows
Some scholars use emergy (spelled with an m) analysis, for example, budgets for the amount of energy of one kind (exergy) that is required to make or transform things into another kind of product or service. Emergy calculations take into account economics which can alter pure physics-based results. Using emergy life-cycle analysis researchers have concluded that materials with large refining costs have the greatest potential for high recycle benefits. Moreover, the highest emergy efficiency accrues from systems geared toward material recycling, where materials are engineered to recycle back into their original form and purpose, followed by adaptive reuse systems where the materials are recycled into a different kind of product, and then by-product reuse systems where parts of the products are used to make an entirely different product.
The Energy Information Administration (EIA) states on its website that “a paper mill uses 40 percent less energy to make paper from recycled paper than it does to make paper from fresh lumber.” Some critics argue that it takes more energy to produce recycled products than it does to dispose of them in traditional landfill methods, since the curbside collection of recyclables often requires a second waste truck. However, recycling proponents point out that a second timber or logging truck is eliminated when paper is collected for recycling, so the net energy consumption is the same. An emergy life-cycle analysis on recycling revealed that fly ash, aluminum, recycled concrete aggregate, recycled plastic, and steel yield higher efficiency ratios, whereas the recycling of lumber generates the lowest recycle benefit ratio. Hence, the specific nature of the recycling process, the methods used to analyse the process, and the products involved affect the energy savings budgets.
It is difficult to determine the amount of energy consumed or produced in waste disposal processes in broader ecological terms, where causal relations dissipate into complex networks of material and energy flow. For example, “cities do not follow all the strategies of ecosystem development. Biogeochemical paths become fairly straight relative to wild ecosystems, with very reduced recycling, resulting in large flows of waste and low total energy efficiencies. By contrast, in wild ecosystems, one population’s wastes are another population’s resources, and succession results in efficient exploitation of available resources. However, even modernized cities may still be in the earliest stages of a succession that may take centuries or millennia to complete.”:720 How much energy is used in recycling also depends on the type of material being recycled and the process used to do so. Aluminium is generally agreed to use far less energy when recycled rather than being produced from scratch. The EPA states that “recycling aluminum cans, for example, saves 95 percent of the energy required to make the same amount of aluminum from its virgin source, bauxite.” In 2009, more than half of all aluminium cans produced came from recycled aluminium. Similarly, it has been estimated that new steel produced with recycled cans reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 75%.
Every year, millions of tons of materials are being exploited from the earth’s crust, and processed into consumer and capital goods. After decades to centuries, most of these materials are “lost”. With the exception of some pieces of art or religious relics, they are no longer engaged in the consumption process. Where are they? Recycling is only an intermediate solution for such materials, although it does prolong the residence time in the anthroposphere. For thermodynamic reasons, however, recycling cannot prevent the final need for an ultimate sink.:1— P. H. Brunner
Economist Steven Landsburg has suggested that the sole benefit of reducing landfill space is trumped by the energy needed and resulting pollution from the recycling process. Others, however, have calculated through life-cycle assessment that producing recycled paper uses less energy and water than harvesting, pulping, processing, and transporting virgin trees. When less recycled paper is used, additional energy is needed to create and maintain farmed forests until these forests are as self-sustainable as virgin forests.
Other studies have shown that recycling in itself is inefficient to perform the “decoupling” of economic development from the depletion of non-renewable raw materials that is necessary for sustainable development.The international transportation or recycle material flows through “… different trade networks of the three countries result in different flows, decay rates, and potential recycling returns”.:1 As global consumption of a natural resources grows, their depletion is inevitable. The best recycling can do is to delay; complete closure of material loops to achieve 100 percent recycling of nonrenewables is impossible as micro-trace materials dissipate into the environment causing severe damage to the planet’s ecosystems. Historically, this was identified as the metabolic rift by Karl Marx, who identified the unequal exchange rate between energy and nutrients flowing from rural areas to feed urban cities that create effluent wastes degrading the planet’s ecological capital, such as loss in soil nutrient production. Energy conservation also leads to what is known as Jevon’s paradox, where improvements in energy efficiency lowers the cost of production and leads to a rebound effect where rates of consumption and economic growth increases.
The amount of money actually saved through recycling depends on the efficiency of the recycling program used to do it. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance argues that the cost of recycling depends on various factors, such as landfill fees and the amount of disposal that the community recycles. It states that communities begin to save money when they treat recycling as a replacement for their traditional waste system rather than an add-on to it and by “redesigning their collection schedules and/or trucks”.
In some cases, the cost of recyclable materials also exceeds the cost of raw materials. Virgin plastic resin costs 40 percent less than recycled resin. Additionally, a United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study that tracked the price of clear glass from 15 July to 2 August 1991, found that the average cost per ton ranged from $40 to $60 while a USGS report shows that the cost per ton of raw silica sand from years 1993 to 1997 fell between $17.33 and $18.10.
Comparing the market cost of recyclable material with the cost of new raw materials ignores economic externalities—the costs that are currently not counted by the market. Creating a new piece of plastic, for instance, may cause more pollution and be less sustainable than recycling a similar piece of plastic, but these factors will not be counted in market cost. A life cycle assessment can be used to determine the levels of externalities and decide whether the recycling may be worthwhile despite unfavorable market costs. Alternatively, legal means (such as a carbon tax) can be used to bring externalities into the market, so that the market cost of the material becomes close to the true cost.
Economist Steven Landsburg, author of a paper entitled “Why I Am Not an Environmentalist”, claimed that paper recycling actually reduces tree populations. He argues that because paper companies have incentives to replenish their forests, large demands for paper lead to large forests while reduced demand for paper leads to fewer “farmed” forests.
In particular, wood from tropical rainforests is rarely harvested for paper because of their heterogeneity. According to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change secretariat, the overwhelming direct cause of deforestation is subsistence farming (48% of deforestation) and commercial agriculture (32%), which is linked to food, not paper production.
In some countries, recycling is performed by the entrepreneurial poor such as the karung guni, zabbaleen, the rag-and-bone man, waste picker, and junk man. With the creation of large recycling organizations that may be profitable, either by law or economies of scale, the poor are more likely to be driven out of the recycling and the remanufacturing market. To compensate for this loss of income, a society may need to create additional forms of societal programs to help support the poor. Like the parable of the broken window, there is a net loss to the poor and possibly the whole of a society to make recycling artificially profitable, e.g. through the law. However, in Brazil and Argentina, waste pickers/informal recyclers work alongside the authorities, in fully or semi-funded cooperatives, allowing informal recycling to be legitimized as a paid public sector job.
Because the social support of a country is likely to be less than the loss of income to the poor undertaking recycling, there is a greater chance the poor will come in conflict with the large recycling organizations. This means fewer people can decide if certain waste is more economically reusable in its current form rather than being reprocessed. Contrasted to the recycling poor, the efficiency of their recycling may actually be higher for some materials because individuals have greater control over what is considered “waste”.
One labor-intensive underused waste is electronic and computer waste. Because this waste may still be functional and wanted mostly by those on lower incomes, who may sell or use it at a greater efficiency than large recyclers.
Some recycling advocates believe that laissez-faire individual-based recycling does not cover all of society’s recycling needs. Thus, it does not negate the need for an organized recycling program. Local government can consider the activities of the recycling poor as contributing to property blight.
Public participation rates
- Single-stream recycling
- Pay as you throw fees for trash
“Between 1960 and 2000, the world production of plastic resins increased 25-fold, while recovery of the material remained below 5 percent.”:131 Many studies have addressed recycling behaviour and strategies to encourage community involvement in recycling programmes. It has been argued that recycling behaviour is not natural because it requires a focus and appreciation for long-term planning, whereas humans have evolved to be sensitive to short-term survival goals; and that to overcome this innate predisposition, the best solution would be to use social pressure to compel participation in recycling programmes. However, recent studies have concluded that social pressure is unviable in this context. One reason for this is that social pressure functions well in small group sizes of 50 to 150 individuals (common to nomadic hunter–gatherer peoples) but not in communities numbering in the millions, as we see today. Another reason is that individual recycling does not take place in the public view.
Recycling in art
In a study done by social psychologist Shawn Burn, it was found that personal contact with individuals within a neighborhood is the most effective way to increase recycling within a community. In his study, he had 10 block leaders talk to their neighbors and persuade them to recycle. A comparison group was sent fliers promoting recycling. It was found that the neighbors that were personally contacted by their block leaders recycled much more than the group without personal contact. As a result of this study, Shawn Burn believes that personal contact within a small group of people is an important factor in encouraging recycling. Another study done by Stuart Oskamp examines the effect of neighbors and friends on recycling. It was found in his studies that people who had friends and neighbors that recycled were much more likely to also recycle than those who didn’t have friends and neighbors that recycled.
Many schools have created recycling awareness clubs in order to give young students an insight on recycling. These schools believe that the clubs actually encourage students to not only recycle at school but at home as well.
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