Recycling — Is it worth it?

Recycling has the potential for a hugely positive environmental impact, but continues to be only partially effective at diminishing society’s environmental footprint. What’s missing?

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Photo by Alex Fu from Pexels

How recycling works

To understand why recycling efficiently is so difficult at the moment, it’s worth looking into how it currently works. Once the waste is collected, there are, three methods used for separating the different materials that make up the different products we find in our lives:

  • Thermal
  • Chemical

Why it is inefficient

With a basic understanding of the different processes we can use to separate waste, it quickly becomes obvious why certain items are hard to recycle, and why some will never make economic sense in their current form. For instance, have a look at your cellphone. It’s made up of a screen, a battery, a processing unit, speakers, a camera, and a shell that is generally a mix of plastic and metal. Now, from these components, that are often glued or soldered together, you have to extract a few cents worth of indium, gallium, tantalum, tin, palladium, silver, and many other materials. It comes as no surprise, then, that most recyclers will focus on high-value metals, such as cobalt and gold, and ignore the remaining elements, condemning them to the landfill. The same dilemma also applies to relatively simpler products. Tetra Paks are seemingly ubiquitous in the food industry, and often promoted as sustainable, but few people realize that aside from the plastic cap, there is also plastic and aluminium mixed in with the cardboard that makes up the container. While all of these materials are, in isolation, easy to recycle, it often makes little economic sense to do so once they are mixed together as is the case with Tetra Paks. The list goes on, and even when products call themselves recyclable, it’s worth asking ourselves if there is going to be a company out there that will realistically spend the time and money to separate every component from a product.

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Why things are not improving faster

The path to better recycling is both simple and complicated at the same time.

How can companies and governments improve the situation?

Someone, at some point, is going to have to take the high road and implement tougher recycling laws. It’s been done before, with many countries recycling close to 100% of car lead-acid batteries for instance, as those were deemed too dangerous to the environment to simply be landfilled. Meanwhile, manufacturers that want to make a difference need to make their products easier to disassemble, something which they often fight against, as many do not like to give their users right-to-repair in the first place on account of it ‘hurting their sales’. Some countries are already moving the right way in certain areas, and better legislation is expected to come soon in others, but it remains a slow and difficult process that many countries still have to face.

So what can I do as a consumer?

I’m glad you ask. The products you buy will one day be facing the same dilemma outlined above. As such, the best thing to do is to consider how easy it is to recycle, and how likely it is to be economically worth doing so. Certain products, such as aluminium cans, are very easily and efficiently recycled almost everywhere, but many will need you to inform yourself about your local guidelines, making it hard to give a single recommendation. In many cases, such as with cellphones, the options are limited. One thing you can do is stay away from brands that are doing their utmost to impede what would help recycling, or avoid brands that put little effort in creating packaging that is easier to recycle or compost. It will go a long way in making recycling more viable, and pushing industries to do the right thing. Finally, as bulk options for groceries are becoming more frequent, why not start skipping the packaging entirely, when- and wherever possible?

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