The amount of waste produced worldwide is estimated to triple by 2025, from 0.68 to 2.2 billion tons per year . The largest producers of waste are, in general, developed countries. Every day, 80 million plastic bottles and 288 million aluminum cans end up in waste in the United States alone .
On average, the amount of waste per person in the United States equals 2.58 kilograms a day, and in some most developed European countries such as Norway or Switzerland the number is very similar; 2.8 kg and 2,6 kg. On the other side of the scale are the poorest countries of Africa, such as Ghana, producing only as much as 0.1 kg of waste per person in one day .
But what will happen when other quickly developing countries catch up?
According to the World Economic Forum, China is expected to triple its amount of waste per year in the next ten years, producing as much 562 million tons of waste a year, which nearly equals the current waste production of North America, Europe, and Australia combined [2,3]. This is especially concerning given that human population keeps rising and is expected to exceed 8 billion in less than 10 years .
From these numbers, it becomes obvious that there will be an increased demand for space and resources. But both of these assets are limited. That is why we need to find a way to change our opinions about waste.
We need to return to principles of nature, where nothing goes to waste, where every bit of used material becomes a resource for a new cause. Only this philosophy will save us from being poisoned and consumed by our own trash.
Why should we recycle?
One of the first life lessons we learn as kids is that everything comes with a price. The same is true when it comes to the waste we throw away. Our waste stream consists of resources like paper, plastic, aluminum, steel, or even precious materials such as gold in cell phones or silver in DVDs—all of which cost money.
For example, the price of aluminum reaches up to $1,600 per ton , and the value of precious metals used in electronics can be as high as $20 billion a year .
Recycling these materials enables their further use instead of being left to slowly decompose while the extraction of raw resources takes place somewhere else to get the same material from scratch. Each time a product is created from newly acquired materials, we lose limited resources and often harm the environment as well.
To manufacture plastic water bottles, 17 million barrels of oil are used each year. This means that plastic bottles need 2,000 times more energy than the same amount of drinkable tap water. Plus, 17 million barrels of oil could power the world’s total energy use for more than two hours. What’s more, to produce one liter of packaged water requires the use of three times more water during the process .
The scale of the resource extraction to produce daily used items is tremendous. And just by recycling plastic bottles, we can spare more than 16 barrels of oil per one ton of plastic . Similarly, one ton of recycled paper saves cutting down 17 trees .
Recycling not only saves energy and our money; it also has the potential to solve many of the environmental issues our world faces today, some of which also negatively affect our health.
Environmental benefits of recycling
The positive effects of recycling can reach as far as the wild rainforests of Indonesia! Take a look at these interesting examples of how your actions can positively impact the environment if you recycle your waste.
Reducing global pollution
Recycling lowers pollution from the mining and processing of raw materials. Aluminum is 100 percent recyclable material. If all cans from soft drinks were recovered, we would prevent a million tons of air pollutants escaping into the atmosphere and severe cases of water pollution near mining sites.
According to BBC News, the increasing demand for aluminum causes great environmental pollution in Malaysia. Open-pit mining of an aluminum ore, bauxite, contaminates local water with heavy metals such as arsenic and mercury.
Lowering greenhouse gas emissions
Every product we use has been made by using energy to extract various resources. Along the way, this process emits a high amount of greenhouse gases, especially well-known carbon dioxide. One ton of recycled plastic, though, prevents the release of one ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere .
It is also important to mention the impact of landfills. Landfills release large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that is 28 times as powerful as carbon dioxide. In 2010, 11 percent of released methane came from waste . Recycling reduces the amount of waste going into landfills and therefore even reduces methane emissions.
Fighting illegal deforestation
Globally, 40 percent of timber is used to make paper products. Two million trees are cut every day to supply the paper demand of the United States. By recycling just ten percent of the paper used by the average American in one year, 25 million trees would be saved .
Since the paper industry has such a high demand for wood, it should come as no surprise that some timber originates from illegal cutting. According to a 2015 report, more than 30 percent of wood used by paper mills in Indonesia comes from illegal deforestation.
Due to the palm oil and paper industry, pristine Indonesian rainforests have been reduced by an area twice the size of Germany in the last 50 years. The effects of such a vast rainforest destruction reach as far as to the endangerment of the Sumatran tiger and the orangutan.
We all use daily products made from various, sometimes rare materials obtained from the most remote places on Earth, under conditions that destroy the lives of local people and drive wildlife species closer to extinction. Just by using these products, we bear part of the guilt. Being responsible consumers—and making sure the lifetime of these resources does not go to “waste” by recycling them properly—enables us to help protect the planet’s resources.