Why Recycle?

By expgreen

Like anyone, I hate being told what to do. The intention of this article is not to guilt you, but to take a look at the current and historical recycling situation.

Michael Braungart and William McDonough’s book Cradle to Cradle discusses a window factory built during the industrial revolution. Forrest surrounded the factory at first, and was progressively cut down to make window frames.

They discuss the logical mindset of the time, that “factories situated themselves near natural resources for easy access and beside bodies of water, which they used both for manufacturing processes and to dispose of wastes.”

They describe the era when “resources seemed immeasurably vast. Nature itself was perceived as a ‘mother earth’ who, perpetually regenerative, would absorb all things and continue to grow.”

So why recycle today?

Since the industrial revolution, understanding of our interactions with the earth has grown immeasurably – particularly regarding carbon emissions, contamination, and natural resources.

Contemporary societies know that the earth’s resources are limited and that using the earth's resources is a balancing act - using what's needed but being frugal.

Below I'll look at the three main reasons to recycle; reducing landfill, preserving natural resources, and avoiding green house gas emissions.

Recycling and Landfill

Digging holes in the ground and filling them with rubbish isn’t sustainable or eco-friendly, particularly in a world of increased consumption, increased packaging, and a growing population.

As well as making the immediate landfill area unuseable, landfill waste produces methane gas (a green house gas), and can contaminate nearby soil and waterways through toxic leachate.

How long do different products take to breakdown in landfill?

Styrofoam                   1 million years

Aluminium can            200-500 years

Disposable Diaper       550 years

Paper bag                    1 month

Banana peel                 3-4 weeks


Recycling and Preserving Resources

Recycling helps to preserve precious and often limited raw materials.

The simplist example is recycling paper, which avoids the need to cut down another tree, or another forest of trees.

Wood products are a particularly good example to highlight the value of such raw materials. Trees are our best weapon against carbon in the atmosphere, but to take advantage of their ability to consume carbon and produce oxygen, they need to be alive.

A recent UN research paper estimates that each person uses 50kg of paper per year.

Reducing Carbon Emissions from extraction and manufacture

The process of extracting raw materials, refining, and manufacturing useable materials is very energy intensive – which creates green house gases and waste by-products.

Aluminium cans highlight the prudent potential of recycling.

For every ton of aluminium mined, a further four tons of bauxite is mined.

Mining five tons to get one ton is environmentally abusive not only in terms of the waste by-product, but it requires enormous energy resources for the extraction and refinement processes.

Each step of the way produces by-products and uses enormous resources, from the four tons of bauxite waste, the electricity used to heat the aluminium smelt, the emissions created by extraction, bauxite-grinding, and transporting five tons of material for one ton of product.

This entire process is extremely energy intensive and can be avoided by recycling previously-mined aluminium.

Zero Waste New Zealand estimates that recycling aluminium cans results in an overall energy saving of 70% [2].

Where are we with recycling?

Gaining a clear and conclusive picture of world recycling efforts is difficult. Although recycling has been an issue for a long time, concerted recycling initiatives are still in their relative infancy. As a result, consistent data is difficult to compile.

An OECD report shows that between 1980 and 2005, municipal waste generation increased by 62%. Contributing factors of the increase include increased use of packaging materials and disposable goods. [5]

In countries included in the report, approximately 18% of waste was recycled during the mid 90’s. By 2005, approximately 30% was recycled or composted. [5]

Over the past decade, many governments have stepped up recycling programmes, including public information campaigns, drop-off recycling centers, and door-to-door recycling collection.

One such country is New Zealand. In 2006, 73% of the population had access to kerbside recycling, compared to 20% in 1996 [3].

In that same time period, recycling of packaging-waste in New Zealand went from around 43kg per person per year to 85kg per person [3].

Summing up – why recycle?

Recycling is an important piece of the puzzle for tackling the degradation of the earth’s ecosystems.

Global warming, limited natural resources, and contaminated eco systems are very real issues that need to be balanced in this generation to avoid a legacy of resourcelessness and contamination for the next generation.

Article References

[1] Missouri Department of Transportation. (2011). Litter facts and research. No More Trash Online. Retrieved from http://extra.mdc.mo.gov/nomoretrash/facts/

[2] Zero Waste New Zealand. (2008). Climate change, sustainability, and waste. Zero Waste New Zealand. Retrieved from http://www.zerowaste.co.nz/what-can-you-do/climate-change-sustainability-and-waste/

[3] Statistics New Zealand. (2009). Measuring New Zealand’s progress using a sustainable development approach: 2008. Wellington: Statistics New Zealand.

[4] Braungart, M., & McDonough, W. (2009). Cradle to cradle: Re-making the way we make things. London: Vintage.

[5] OECD. (2011). Waste generation, recycling and prevention. Greening Household Behavior. OECD Publishing. Retrieved from http://www.keepeek.com/Digital-Asset-Management/oecd/environment/greening-household-behaviour/waste-generation-recycling-and-prevention_9789264096875-7-en

First published January 10, 2012
Last updated February 3, 2021

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