Recycling – not all its cracked up to be?

October 9, 2007 at 11:20 am

With recycling such a buzz word in today’s society, you’d be hard pressed to find many studies questioning its benefits. However, a study has now been collated showing what the average UK household bin contains. The results were surprising – while almost half of it is naturally bio-degradable, 53% of our rubbish is rather more difficult for the environment to deal with. Indeed, there are certain items where the evidence in favour of recycling is overwhelming, but others where the scientific justification is lacking.

Some arguments against recycling have concentrated on the naivety of household recycling and our misconception that what we do is fundamental to reducing resource depletion. Recent statistics have shown that UK household metal recycling accounts for just 2% of the total ferrous scrap recycled in the UK. Furthermore, even if we managed to increase our household recycling by 50%, the total amount of waste going to landfill would only be reduced by 5%.

Renewable Resources?

What we should think about is the end result of recycling, namely reducing the output of harmful chemicals and resource depletion. Paper and glass are ultimately sourced from renewable resources, trees and sand. With sand being the most dominant element on the earth’s surface, worrying about it running out is not a grave concern.

There is also scientific evidence now that paper is likely to degrade within 2-5 months when sent to landfill; provided that there’s enough dirt, oxygen and bacteria to work their magic. This leaves us with the central question, are the environmental benefits of recycling better than producing new goods?

Aluminium and Steel

This has been one of the areas where the majority of research has been concentrated and the benefits of recycling are very evident. Metals can be recycled without losing any of their properties and the environmental benefits are vast. For example by recycling a tonne of steel the following are achieved:

  • Reduction in water pollution by 76%
  • The saving of 1.5 tonnes of iron ore and 0.5 tonnes of coal
  • 75% reduction in the energy needed to make steel relative to virgin material
  • 1.28 tonnes of solid waste reduction
  • Reduced air emissions by 86%

Aluminium recycling produces similar benefits, needing only 5% of the energy that would be consumed in sourcing aluminium from the raw material. It also saves around 4 tonnes of chemical products and 1,400 kWH per tonne produced.

Cost/ Benefit Analysis

Unfortunately, the available evidence on this front is rather limited. However,
Transwatch has produced a significant study on the greenhouse gas emissions of cars. For example, if we were all to drive rubbish individually to recycling we would produce 860 grams of carbon, 1.18 grams of Carbon Monoxide (CO) 13.2grams of Nitrous Oxide (NOx) and 0.072 grams of Sulphur Dioxide per kilogram of fuel we used – all incredibly harmful to the ozone layer. In contrast, a single lorry will carry over 20 times the amount to be recycled, but only produce on average twice the amount of CO and NOx as well as maintain levels of carbon and sulphur oxide production. In conclusion then, rather than all trying to be altruists, we’d be much better off leaving it for the rubbish men.

This same logic needs to be applied to the harmful chemicals produced by factories specializing in recycling. Thankfully, this analysis has heralded positive results with the Institute of Science in Society estimating that 1.8 tonnes of oil are saved and sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxide production reduced by two-thirds and half respectively when recycling polythene.

So What should we do?

Scientifically, many of the benefits of recycling are self-evident. However, it is only the tip of the iceberg and sacrifice is going to prove important if we really want to do something positive. This analysis only touches on the issues involved but hopefully provides some food for thought. Other things that we should all consider:

  • Buy a kettle that keeps your water boiling at all times – this saves massive amounts of energy.
  • Buy products manufactured in countries using renewable resources rather than those intent on burning fossil fuels.
  • Use energy saving light bulbs, old style light bulbs waste 90% of the energy they produce as heat.

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2 responses to “Recycling – not all its cracked up to be?”

  1. Keith Farnish says:

    Good article – we must emphasise the need to reduce before anything else. However, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and suphur dioxide are not harmful to the ozone layer; they are – respectively – a greenhouse gas, and two tropospheric air pollutants. You need to read up on your climate science before you next post an article otherwise others may get incorrect information.

  2. recyclingmobilephones says:

    A very good point raised. Instead of looking at only one angle how to recycle, if we can focus on alternative resources to keep the environment clean. For example mobile phones can cause leakages in landfills. So recycling mobile phones is a good option. This website provides the service in addition gives money for the old mobiles.

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