Does Recycling Really Make a Difference?

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

Such is certainly a good question and one that is frequently in the minds of many people though not often openly asked because we are being told to recycle and in some cases “forced” to do so. So, how valuable is it really?

While it can be tricky to contextualize the real impact of dropping a few cans and bottles into the right bin, your recycling really does make a big difference if the recycling is, in fact, done right by the municipalities, for instance.

In the UK, for example, when the bottom, so to speak, fell out of the market for glass for recycling some while ago while the bottles were still collected from the bins they were dumped in the same truck – unsorted despite the people had sorted them – and dumped in landfill. The collectors could not get enough money for the material.

Also, we must beware of certain supposed recycling collections, such as those for plastic grocery bags: in the main the cannot be recycled so, while stores may collect them they do end up in landfill anyway. You might as well use them to wrap your trash in them.

However, dome properly, recycling does work and has a very important point in our fight to clean up the environment.

Let's look here for a moment at the benefits of recycling aluminium.

First of all, as with many things in this world, it just takes more – more resources, more energy – to make new things than to recycle old things. Consider that 20 recycled cans can be made with the energy needed to produce just one single can using virgin materials. In addition to that Bauxite, the raw material from which aluminium is made, is a rare commodity and becoming rarer every minute.

How does that add up in your life? Recycling one aluminium can saves enough energy to keep a 100-watt bulb burning for almost four hours or run your television for three hours. And, tossing a single aluminium can in the garbage wastes as much energy as pouring out half of that can’s volume of gasoline.

If energy savings aren't your thing, it turns out the recycling can also have significant social benefits, too. Consider the Cans for Habitat program, a national partnership between the Aluminium Association and Habitat for Humanity, where aluminium cans are recycled through a network of nationwide drop-off locations to raise money for Habitat for Humanity to build quality, affordable housing for, and with, low-income families.

Benefits of recycling glass

Glass is one of the most popular materials recycled, because of its raw material composition – mostly sand – and because it can be recycled over and over again without degrading in quality. In fact, recycled glass is the main ingredient in making "new" glass, and an estimated 80 percent of recovered glass containers are made into new glass bottles.

Every 20 glass bottles you recycle will save two pounds of carbon emissions; that adds up to 700 pounds of carbon emissions – the equivalent savings of line-drying your laundry for six months – saved per ton of glass that is melted down.

However, having said the above, one of my pet peeves is in fact the recycling of glass bottles that are not broken and could much better and cheaper for much less energy be simply cleaned and refilled and used again.

Such as system was in use all over the place, in Europe as well as the USA, up until about the mid-1970s. Then suddenly everything ended up first in throw-away glass bottles, such as soda and coke, and later, finally, in plastic ones.

There is, however, no need for a glass bottle, or any glass container for that matter, to be broken up and remade into new glass. All it needs is for them to be cleaned and refilled. That simple. The savings are tremendous, for the economy and especially the environment.

Recycling should only, though, be number three or four in our considerations as to what to do with out waste.

First of we should think about reducing the amount of waste that we generate; then we should look at how we can reuse repurpose and upcycle some of the things that are often considered waste; and finally and only then, we should think of recycling.

Glass bottles, and glass containers per se, should not ever end up in the trash nor the recycling – unless broken – but should go back to whence they came to be cleaned and refilled and thus reused.

But everywhere we look, in Britain at least, so far the talk is only about recycling of glass and making it into new glass and other products.

If we really, as nations, want to do somenting to reduce the use of energy and the waste of resources we must get back (1) to the use of glass over plastics as far as bottles and other containers are concerned and (2) we must get back to a return for refund scheme for bottles, as it used to be, and (3) add into such schemes also glass jars of every kind.

General recycling

While recycling is beneficial for the environment and even the economy – to a point on both counts – it would be much better if we, ourselves, everyone that is, would think before we toss anything out as to whether it could be used for something else or whether there may be someone who could use it for something else.

When it comes to recycling of materials other than aluminium and glass there are some that simply cannot be recycled, despite at times the public being misled by a variety of claims for the manufacturers and also even politicians that those can be recycled.

Such are, for instance, drinks pouches and also many a candy wrapper, as well as packaging of potato crisps (potato chips as our American cousins would call them) and other such kinds of snacks. In most cases those packaging are a laminate of a variety of materials that cannot be separated and hence the packaging cannot be recycled.

Companies such as TerraCycle, however, and also initiatives such as Trashe Bolsas and others in the Philippines upcycle many of such materials into products that are very well made and very useful to boot.

There is, in fact, a great deal more of materials that we use – especially for and in packaging – that simply cannot be recycled. It is, therefore, high time that we rethought carefully – as nations and individuals – as to what we are using. The people, that is you, I and everyone, could force a change if they would just be prepared to do so.

© 2009