Recycling is defined as the process of turning items that would have been wasted into new materials. That’s it. The items can be absolutely anything, the new materials can be totally different and the processes can all vary. The fact that recycling is such a massive industry also makes it pretty confusing.
What goes on after your recycle bin gets picked up? How are your crushed cans reused? There are a whole lot of questions about recycling that just get ignored so we're breaking it down.*
*We also want to say that composting is technically recycling of organic waste but for simplicity’s sake, we’re not covering it here.
In fact, there are some arguments that it’s actually better to compost paper and cardboard materials rather than recycle them. The main two are that it eliminates the need to buy additional carbon materials for your compost and that most paper and cardboard can only be recycled about five times.
But, back to the main point.
Households have it pretty easy with recycling. Anything paper, plastic, metal or glass goes straight in the yellow-lidded bin, just like that, easy-peasy, end-of-story. It then gets collected, magically sorted and transforms into a new material!
Ok, well, not quite.
For the past few decades, municipal waste has transitioned towards this single-stream recycling. Waste is collected from homes and transported to sorting facilities, where the pure materials are then either processed into new items or sent to landfill.
There are countless benefits associated with recycling which make it an absolute no-brainer. The two main reasons it’s great for the environment specifically are that it both prevents waste going to landfill and it prevents the need to mine and manufacture new materials. But along with these benefits, there are also some major challenges.
Mostly as a result of single-stream recycling, people often make mistakes as to what can and can’t be recycled, leading to bins that are highly contaminated with non-recyclable waste and increasing the cost of separation.
Despite this, people are also extremely unwilling to pay enough for recycling, meaning those contaminated recycle bins just go straight to landfill. On the same note, whether due to cost or lack of technology, certain types of waste are simply impossible to recycle. This is typically e-waste and plastic, both of which have been massively on the rise.
Maybe the most concerning problem is that for recycling to be worthwhile, it needs to produce less emissions than producing a new item would. While it might seem like it’s always better to recycle materials, sometimes that’s just not the case and actually the best solution would have been not buying the thing in the first place.
Addressing these challenges won’t be easy but the future of recycling is an exciting place. We’re already seeing countless exciting initiatives, from Japan’s 5-bin system to the $100 million recycling fund just kicked off in Australia. The first step is always minimising the waste we make, by reducing and conscious consumption, but for what we can’t avoid, recycling is our best bet.
And of course organics recycling (aka composting) will always be our favourite! If you don't already know why, check out our website for more info and stay posted on our socials - Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn!