Global Recycling Day
By Tami Battle
An initiative started by the Global Recycling Foundation, 18th March, 2021 marks the fourth year of the Global Recycling Day and provides an opportunity for us to consider what recycling is, why we do it, and whether it is enough.
Recycling is the process of converting waste materials into new materials and objects. Twenty years ago, recycling was a relatively alien concept, save for drinks companies offering money back for the return of glass bottles. In October 2003, the Household Waste Recycling Act was passed in parliament and the new law meant everyone in the UK could take part in kerbside recycling from home. Since then, separating household waste has become second nature and these days we wouldn’t dream of throwing a plastic bottle in the same bin as a crisp packet!
But why do we do it? Why is it so important?
Every year, we draw natural resources from the Earth. Since 1970, the resources we have drawn each year has exceeded the amount that the planet will naturally replenish in the same time period. The date in the year that we surpass Earth’s regeneration capabilities is called Earth Overshoot Day – and it keeps getting earlier in the calendar.
In 1970, Earth Overshoot Day fell on the 29th December, meaning nearly all the resources used that year would be regenerated by the planet and we were almost living within Earth’s means. Since 1970, the date of Earth Overshoot Day has been arriving earlier and earlier – in 2018 and 2019, the date fell in July. 2020 saw a marked improvement with the COVID-19 pandemic halting leisure travel and many people working from home and reducing their personal driving miles, and Earth Overshoot Day fell on the 22nd of August. However, even with an improvement on the years before, an August date still means we are in a deficit of Earth’s resources by over a third of a year, every year.
Recycling waste and buying products made from recycled materials can help lessen human impact on earth’s resources – and perhaps if more people embraced it a little more, we might be able to nudge Earth Overshoot Day further towards December 31st, where it belongs.
How beneficial is recycling?
Recycling aluminium is very positive for the environment, with recycling aluminium using 95% less energy than producing it from raw materials, along with releasing 97% less greenhouse gas emissions and saving the CO2 equivalent of driving over 25,000 miles in raw materials for every ton of aluminium produced.
Aluminium is what’s known as ‘infinitely recyclable’, meaning carbon and raw material savings every time we choose to buy and recycle something packaged in it. Glass is also infinitely recyclable, but plastic has a finite recyclability before it will ultimately be discarded and then takes centuries to degrade. In fact, it is thought that every piece of plastic ever made on earth is still on earth in some form.
Using products made from recycled materials is also a way to minimise environmental impact. A 2012 study looked at the environmental savings from producing recycled paper over virgin paper and found it used 33% less energy, released 37% less emissions and 49% less water.
When we fail to separate recyclable waste, or we buy items that cannot be recycled (or are wrapped in packaging that cannot be recycled), this waste takes one of two routes after disposal: it will go to landfill, or to an incinerator. The route your waste will take will be largely determined by where you live and which facilities you are closer to (those in Oxfordshire will see their non-recyclable waste shipped to Ardley Energy Recovery Facility where it is burnt to produce energy). It’s worth noting that the process of incineration– though it produces energy – is far from ideal. Not only does the process create toxic pollutants such as dioxins, acid gases and heavy metals, but the energy required to run the plants is also significant and more than would be required to recycle the same volume of materials, were they recyclable. It’s good practice, therefore, to separate your waste carefully to ensure that everything that can be recycled, is recycled!
How can I be a better recycler?
- Keep back any aluminium foil until you have enough to make a fist-sized ball. The equipment at some recycling centres struggle to pick out small bits of foil so bunching the smaller pieces together gives them a better chance of being recycled.
- Look at your packaging and separate materials that are joined together – such as the cardboard sleeve around a plastic yoghurt carton. Though plastic and cardboard go into the same bin, if they are joined together, there is a chance that both will be diverted to landfill at the recycling plant. Separating at the point of throwing out will increase the chance that they get recycled.
- Check your local supermarket to see if they take unusual recyclables – most supermarkets now take bread bags and other thin plastic bags for recycling.
- Use the Recycling Locator https://www.recyclenow.com/node/1904 to find local recycling locations for specific items, including electrical goods and building materials.
- Consider the recycling instructions on the packaging of goods before you buy them. If something cannot be recycled, does the shop sell the same item in an alternative packet – or without packaging at all?
- If the options available to you have an aluminium or glass alternative over plastic packaging, these are much better from a recycling point of view.
- Know what to squash! Contrary to popular belief, crushing your drinks cans prior to recycling can make it difficult for the equipment to detect them, so place these into the recycling bin whole.
- Bottle lids under 40mm in size cannot be picked up by the machines either. Make sure you leave these on bottles before recycling. Any lids of jars should be separated.
In next week’s blog, we look at recycling in more depth and ask the important question: Is it enough to recycle?