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What is it?

Recycling is the processing of used or unwanted goods to provide the raw material to make new ones. Recycling prevents useful material resources being wasted, reduces the use of raw materials and energy and as a result cuts greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to Climate Change. Recycling is a key concept of modern waste management and is the third stage of the waste hierarchy after reduce and reuse.

Recycling involves three steps:

  • Collecting materials to be recycled
  • Processing these materials
  • Re-manufacturing products from these materials that are then purchased

If all these three steps are followed, then we are 'closing the recycling loop', hence the recycling symbol- the mobius loop- with its three arrows.

Where is it used?

Recycling schemes are operated throughout the world.

How does it work?

Image depicting RecyclingThe process can be separated into clean and dirty recycling.

Clean recycling involves the separate collection of recyclable material from the kerbside in a container such as a box, bin or bag or at 'drop off' points where recycling banks are located. The recyclables are then placed on specially designed vehicles with different compartments for different materials. The success of this type of scheme relies on people sorting their waste correctly.

Another approach is to collect recycled materials mixed together (co mingled) with separation taking place later through mechanical processes and hand sorting at plants called Materials Reclamation Facilities (MRF).

The alternative to this approach, 'dirty recycling', does not require the householder to sort their waste for recycling; all waste (recyclables and non recyclables) is put in the same container. The recyclable materials are removed later at a dirty MRF through a variety of mechanical processes and hand sorting. It should be noted that because the waste is mixed the recyclable materials produced by this system often suffer from higher levels of contamination.

Key Issues

Whatever collection methodology is used, recycling requires facilities, even if separation takes place at the kerbside, these materials will still need to be stored and possibly baled prior to being transported somewhere for reprocessing. These facilities may suffer from similar Not-In My-Backyard (NIMBY) issues experienced by other waste management facilities. In addition, it should be noted, that not all materials can be recycled and as a result additional technologies requiring infrastructure are required.

The reduction in the use of raw materials is the main benefit from recycling. By recovering materials from used products we are removing or reducing the need to extract yet more raw materials from the planet. This is important because the vast majority of resources that we use in manufacturing goods and providing services cannot be replaced. We need to remember that the use of these resources cannot go on indefinitely - we will eventually run out.

Image depicting Recycling Plant Image depicting Ailgylchu Image depicting Recycling Plant 3

Recycling also means that we avoid many of the additional environmental impacts associated with extracting the new resources, and the subsequent manufacturing and distribution of the goods produced. The mining, quarrying and logging to get resources can be environmentally destructive, damaging the natural environment and local wildlife habitats.  The processing and transportation activities also add to the environmental impact. Recycling often reduces energy use and causes less pollution than using raw materials.

Recycling is a practical and positive step, which we can all take to help the environment. It encourages us to think about the waste we produce and take responsibility for what happens to it. Perhaps this is the greatest advantage of recycling, as it raises our awareness, which is the first step towards changing the way we deal with any problem.

However recycling is not just about separating waste for collection. Recycling is about creating new materials from old and these materials have to compete against virgin raw materials. As a result, markets for recyclables fluctuate a great deal, being influenced by the supply and demand for both virgin and recycled materials. We can all play an even more important role by making sure we 'buy recycled', to close the recycling loop.

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