part of most people’s lives. However, the last few years have seen it become an integral aspect of our everyday activities, with many of us now sorting our rubbish into waste and recyclables without really thinking about it. While recycling is generally considered to be positive though, many of us fail to consider that our actions may in fact be having harmful effects that are contrary to the purpose we are trying to achieve.
The principal reason for recycling is to reduce energy usage, as by making repeated use of items (perhaps in different forms), we are reducing the amount of raw materials that need to be produced for new products. Processes such as mining and refining use up massive amounts of energy, so by finding alternative uses for things which have already had one life, we are helping to restrict the necessity for further invasive activities which negatively impact on the environment.
Much of our waste ends up in landfill sites, ugly polluting areas which can cause environmental problems of their own, such as groundwater contamination through leakages. Waste simply sits there to rot and which can take decades if not longer to disappear. Greenhouse gases such as methane (which is also potentially explosive) are also produced, while infectious disease vectors like rats and flies are also drawn to such sites¹. By recycling, we are reducing the amount of material that gets sent to landfills, which reduces the potential for all these described impacts. Social benefits too arise from decreased landfill use, as unpleasant odors and congestion associated with sites are reduced².
On the downside though, recycling is not always a cost effective process³. The need to establish separate factories to process reusable materials drives up costs, as well as increases pollution as material must be transported, cleaned and stored. Initial costs to set up recycling units are high too, as specialist utility vehicles must be acquired, facilities upgraded and residents educated as to the necessity for the process.
From a social aspect, although recycling creates jobs, as a study in Environmental Impact Assessment Review found, these are often poorly paid, unsatisfying roles which require individuals to sift through waste⁴. In many ways, recycling sites are little different from landfills, and have their own share of hazards, with workers potentially coming into contact with toxic materials that may impact on their health. Any kind of waste brings with it the possibility for disease and the leaching of harmful chemicals, which can end up contaminating water supplies. The problem is made worse by the bad management of many sites, particularly in poorer countries where standards are low⁵.
From the consumer’s perspective, recycling does not always result in quality products. If the input material is poor, then the recycled product is likely to be of a similar standard, with a short lifespan. China even refused Britain’s rubbish on the grounds that it wasn’t good enough for their needs, with much of it being too dirty or too contaminated⁶.
Recycling is a clear part of our lives these days, with amounts of materials rising constantly as the message is sent out to more and more people. However, what is often forgotten is that recycling is just one part of what is known as the ‘waste hierarchy’, which evaluates the processes that protect the environment according to their energy and resource use. Recycling actually sits somewhere in the middle of the hierarchy, with ‘reuse’, ‘minimization’ and ‘prevention’ clearly above it, so bear this is mind next time you’re making a purchase or standing in front of your bins.