To recycle or not to recycle – is that really a question?

For most of us, the idea of not recycling is unthinkable. But for some, the environmental worth of the third R is questionable. And maybe it's right to question it, rather then just accept the status quo.

Let's look at a few questions that we really should ask.

  • Is it really better?

  • Doesn't it still use loads of energy?

  • What about all the extra recycling facilities needed?

  • Does it really make a difference?

  • Shouldn't we just be learning to use less as a society instead of making more?

Like everything, recycling has its pros and cons and maybe the majority just think it's right because they're told to. In fact we are not just told to, we have been brainwashed to think recycling above and beyond everything else, despite the fact that there are three “Rs” in the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” mantra. In fact the mantra should have a fourth “R”, namely “Repurpose” and maybe a fifth even, called “Rework” or “Remake”

Way too many people cannot think beyond recycle and the recycle bin. They will toss a tin can that they have just cleaned and from which they have even removed the label (we told to do that in many areas) into the recycling bin and then go out to buy a recycled steel pencil bin. Well, the tin just tossed would have done the job equally well at no cost.

The same goes for glass jars. They toss glass jars from produce and then go and buy recycled glass storage jars. Stop, I say. Think before you throw. And that goes for everything.

On top of that we need to reduce. But when reduce does not work then use reuse and repurpose before even thinking recycling.

So let's look at some aspects a little more closely:

1. Should we throw the can into the recycling bin?

So, let us start here with what could be described as the star of the recycling world, which is, without a doubt, the aluminum can. It can be recycled again and again and again and again and never weaken. Nothing needs to be added to it in order to do this. No chemicals are needed and the raw material does not change. This means that 2/3 of all aluminum ever produced is still in use today.

Plus the energy needed to recycle aluminum is minimal. Recycling this material uses 95% less energy than it does to produce a completely new can.

So what happens if you don't recycle the can? Well, you end up needing to mine 4 tonnes of Bauxite ore to create just 1 tonne of aluminum. What's more, for every single new aluminum can made, the same amount of energy could be used to recycle 20 old cans. Thus, aluminum cans are a clear recycling winner. Similar goes for recycling steel cans, such as those used for produce. Though personally I still think as to whether I can reuse the can before canning it.

2. Plastic – recycle or not recycle?

Plastic is another material that uses a great deal less energy to recycle than it does to produce new, 70% less in fact.

Unfortunately, however, plastic does not keep its strength in the same way that aluminum does meaning it often gets down-cycled into something different such as fleece, polyester, carpets and plastic “wood”, used for benches, plant pots, fences, etc.

While it's great that it is being reused and not clogging up landfills, it also means that the majority of plastic items you buy require fresh, new oil to be drilled up out of our ocean floors. Claims that something is made from 100% recycled plastic are often misleading such as with plastic grocery bags and such. The maximum recycled contents possible, regardless of claims, is 25% to 30%. No more.

Whilst packaging experts are working on ever improving processes to increase the quality of recycled plastic, the answer in the meantime is to recycle what you got and try to buy less of the stuff. This is where reduce and reuse really come into their own and yet another reason to go ditch the bottled water habit.

3. Paper

Paper is a tricky one and gets a lot of flack as regards to usage but also to recycling.

Paper loses its strength fairly quickly when recycled and can often use more water in the recycling process than is needed to produce new paper. It usually needs chemicals added to get rid of the inks which then in turn requires more energy to be removed.

Many people – especially people in the Green Movement – falsely claim that our use of paper endangers the tropical rainforests, primarily the Amazon one. I did say falsely because it is not just a myth but a blatant lie.

Tropical hardwoods are entirely unsuitable for paper production and thus no trees from the Amazon Rainforest or other such areas are ever going to be used for the making of paper. Truth is that paper is, predominately, made from softwoods and most are grown specifically for paper production.

Trees can be replanted in order for more paper to be made, which has prompted many to argue that paper is in fact a renewable resource and therefore recycling it is a waste of time.

I wouldn't go as far as that, however, on both counts though paper is by far the better options to e-Readers and while I am all for e-books in PDF the reader devices and their use is, in fact, counterproductive and bad for the environment.

Reusing old paper just couldn't be easier and this is something that I certainly do and recommend that you also do. One-side printed paper can easily be turned into notebooks; something that I do all the time. Other paper can be used as wrapping paper, made into gift bags, or used as fire starters. It can also be shredded for pet cages and animal bedding, and composted and reused in hundreds of other ways.

I use lots of notepaper, in the form of specially folded A-4 sheets, that I carry in on me in a wallet for note-taking and those, if no longer required, I run through a shredder, then use as bedding for my hens and afterwards they go into the composters. I do the same with all correspondence that is no longer required, bills and such like.

The best way, therefore, as far as paper is concerned is to reuse it and compost it, considering the amount of energy it takes to recycle. While it may be true that we are cutting down trees at an unprecedented rate the paper companies in fact own those forests – in the main – and replant, replacing, as a rule one cut tree with a minimum of three.

That is not to say that we should just toss the paper that we cannot reuse. It should go for recycling but the problem, like with plastics and glass (and we will come to that later), often the recycling means down-cycling rather than making into the same products again.

4. Glass

Glass is like aluminum and can be recycled again and again without any change in the material. However, it only uses 33% less energy than producing new glass and that is without the energy consumption involved in collecting and sorting being taken into account in the overall energy usage. Meaning that the energy needed to recycle and make new glass isn't that different after all.

In fact, more often than not, the glass from the glass recycling bins is not being recycled into new glass at all but is down-cycled into “sand” and “aggregate” for road building, as well as into counter tops, and “bricks”.

The truth is that we should get back to the way we dealt with glass not so long ago by having a deposit on bottles, as they can be cleaned and reused ad infinitum, as long as they are not chipped, cracked or broken, and it should apply to ALL bottles and also to glass jars.

To all intents and purposes there is no winner in the contest and thus one could assume that recycling is not worth it. While recycling is not the the saviour, the one size fits all solution to our resource issues, it does not mean that we should abandon it. For, if we want our resources to go a lot further then we need to keep on recycling, but reuse, especially as far as some things are concerned is a great deal better.

Glass bottles and jars should be returned to be reused for their original purpose and we should reuse paper and other things as much as at all possible.

Recycling is the last of the 3 R's for a reason. Reduce is the first thing we all need to do followed closely by Reuse. The green mantra ain't laid out like it is for no reason. Unfortunately, the majority of the people do not see it that way and that may have a lot to do with the fact that we seem to have been brainwashed, as I already said, into just being able to think “recycling”.

Furthermore the mantra should have at least one other “R” added, the “R” for “repurpose” and people must be taught – for lack of a better word – this mantra properly, with the addition of the “repurpose” idea.

If you can, do without. Shops likes Unpackaged in London, In.Gredients in Texas and The Soap Dispensary in Canada allow you to buy your usual shopping but without all that pesky packaging. Buying from farmers markets or signing up to vegetable box schemes is another great way to banish unnecessary materials.

And if you can't reduce, then reuse, reuse and reuse some more.

Empty glass jars can become vases for flowers, drinking glasses and chandeliers and are the perfect place to store your homemade jams and sauces.

Plastic bottles and containers can be reused over and over to store a multitude of things from food to toys to DIY bits and pieces.

Plastic milk “bottles” can be turned into planters for salad and watering cans, and many other things.

All that's needed is a tiny by of creativity and following the 3 R's in the order they were intended. And that is the key, namely to follow the mantra in the way it reads. It is “reduce, reuse, recycle” and not “recycle, recycle, recycle”. Recycling should only be the last resort, ever.

I rest my case (it is getting heavy).

© 2012