Debate: is recycling is still important?

Recovery of energy from waste can only help provide a balanced energy policy when recycling is not a viable option, argues Liz Goodwin.

Bottle Trash Dump Garbage Waste Ecology Recycling

Recent reports could have led you to believe that recycling is no longer worth it. But the truth is very different. We have made giant strides in recycling over the past decade. In 2001, the recycling rate was 11.2%.

By 2008, this was up to 34.5%. By 2050, that figure needs to have reached 50%. It would be a tragedy if people believed the lies and decided that recycling was no longer worth the effort.

Recycling is worth it. Our independent research carried out by internationally recognised experts has shown that, across the board, recycling is the best environmental option.

Incineration has recently been touted as the holy grail for dealing with recyclable materials, but this is not as good environmentally as recycling. Recovery of energy from waste can only help provide a balanced energy policy when recycling is not a viable option.

In fact, research shows that more energy is saved by recycling plastics than is gained by burning them. Recycling saves two tonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions per tonne of plastic compared with incineration. Even exporting recycled material provides around five times the savings in carbon emissions compared with sending it to waste-for-energy treatment facilities.


Recycling in China

Believe it or not, selling the UK’s used plastic bottles and paper for recycling in China actually saves carbon emissions. Shipping these materials 10,000 miles produces less CO2 than sending them to landfill at home and using brand new materials. This demonstrates exactly how efficient recycling is.

In 83% of circumstances, recycling paper, card, glass, plastics and metals is preferable to any other option. Recycling these items is estimated to save more than 18m tonnes of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions per year.

Along with all commodities, the current economic climate has meant that prices for recyclable materials have fallen. However, the good news is that prices have begun to stabilise. Prices dropped in a similar way in the 1990s, and they did recover.

I am disappointed and angry that the efforts of millions of people is being threatened in this way. When we asked people about their attitudes to recycling just last year, 95% said it had become part of their every day routine.

So, now you know the facts, take action. Keep on recycling and spread the word. We cannot afford to waste resources. Let’s make the most of what we have – by turning it back into something new, instead of pointlessly using up limited and valuable resources.

Liz Goodwin is chief executive of Wrap.


A waste of a green energy source

by Dr Tim Fox

Contrary to popular opinion, energy-fromwaste (EfW) and recycling are not competing approaches for dealing with waste. Understood properly, they are entirely complementary and both processes can see waste as a resource rather than as a problem.

Both lead equally to a reduction in waste sent to landfill, but what is often not recognised is that EfW recovers energy for use, while recycling recovers material but absorbs energy in doing so. Indeed, virtually any genuine form of material recycling requires an industrial process that consumes energy, much of which will be sourced from fossil fuels.

Neither approach should be considered as more important than the other. Whether materials, energy or both are recovered should depend on a thorough analysis of the waste stream’s suitability for its intended use, the processing options’ overall environmental impact and on the market for what is recovered.

For example, at one end of the scale, most metals are incombustible and are, therefore, unsuitable for EfW but are relatively easy to recycle. With an established local market for the product, recycling metals almost always uses less energy and produces fewer emissions than converting ores into a product.


Recycling of incombustibles

At the other end, some methods of recycling glass, which is also incombustible, have been shown to be more harmful to the environment than sending the waste items to landfill.

Many wastes fall somewhere between the two and require very careful analysis. Paper and paper products are an example because they are costly and problematic to recycle, in a market subject to volatility, yet readily combustible for energy production using EfW and of high value in meeting the UK’s challenging energy commitments for 2020.

It is, therefore, difficult to automatically justify either the recycling or EfW processes for paper on an energy, environmental or market basis without thorough analysis on a case-by-case basis.

This analysis becomes even more important when waste is transported long distances to be processed and account must be taken, not only of all the energy consumption and carbon emissions along the way, but also of the wider environmental impacts of that transportation. In this case, consideration should also be given to how the waste is processed in the destination country as environmental controls may differ from those in the UK.

A genuine waste-as-resource approach should consider options to recover both materials and energy. Which is most appropriate must be decided after thorough analysis of the options’ overall impact, taking each step into account, and the availability of markets for the end products, be it energy or materials.

Dr Tim Fox is head of environment at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

• Originally published in GreenerLiving magazine in April 2009



Peter a journalist with 30 years experience of freelance writing, UK national newspaper and magazine production roles, and business development. In 2007, he developed and launched a mainstream-style green consumer magazine in the UK, called GreenerLiving, as a means of promoting sustainable change ‘within the system’. GreenerLiving closed during the post-crash recession, but Peter went on to become managing editor of the international ethical business title, Ethical Performance. However, Peter felt that the CSR sector has not succeeded in changing corporate priorities anywhere near fast enough, and so I decided to leave the treadmill of corporate employment and debt accumulation to focus on my own projects. Now poorer but a billion million times happier, he writes on political, economic and social issues – usually seriously, but sometimes as satire. He's currently writing Psychopath Economics, a book about the logic of social and economic power, belief systems, and the rise and fall of societies. Peter is convinced that ordinary people must educate themselves and exercise their economic leverage if we are to avoid social and environmental destruction.

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