Green Tau Issue 32

Why Recycle? 

Recycling has over the years become a more topical subject, linked to a growing

awareness of concern for the environment, and in particular concerns about climate change. Over the last decade recycling rates in the Uk have been increasing. In 2010/11 42% of waste (that is waste from households) was recycled. Recycling rates reached a peak in 2019/20 of 45.5% – but last year they fell back to under 44% (a rate last recorded in 2012/13).  2020/21 also saw a small increase (1.3%) in the total volume of household waste.

Why do we seek to recycle more? How does it help the environment? How does it impact on climate change?

Reasons for recycling:

  • Reduces  the space needed for landfill. It is better for the environment if land is kept in its natural state rather than being filled with waste. The experience of the covid pandemic has shown us the value of green spaces.
  • Reduces the risk of pollution. Landfill as a means of waste disposal leads to air and water pollution as obnoxious chemicals and particulates escape. Landfill creates long term pollution as  toxic chemicals remain lodged in the soil. As materials rot, landfill sites become a source of methane one of the more powerful green house gases. Disposing of waste by incineration causes pollution, both from poisonous chemicals and from particulates that cause lung diseases. Incineration also produces greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. Un-disposed or improperly disposed waste creates litter. Litter is an eye sore and detracts from people’s quality of life. Litter can harbour and spread desirable bacteria etc. Litter can blocked drains and rivers, leading to flooding. It can be consumed by animals causing injury or death. Through the food chain, micro quantities of plastic are now being found in the bodies of all living creatures, including ourselves. 
  • Recycling conserves limited natural resources. There comes a point at which the supply of natural sources of materials – iron ore, helium gas, lithium etc -will run out. Then we will have to rely on reusing these materials.
  • NB Helium gas cannot be manufactured. It has to be carefully mined as once released into the atmosphere, its light weight means that it floats straight out into the outermost part of the atmosphere. Helium is an essential gas used in the operating of MRI scanners – we cannot afford to use it in party balloons.
  • Recycling conserves energy used in producing raw materials. Aluminium in particular requires large amounts of energy to extract the metal from the bauxite. Far less energy is needed to create fresh aluminium from pre-used aluminium.
  • Recycling can save or earn money. Metals such as gold and aluminium obviously have a high scrap value, but as too do other materials such as glass, plastics, paper and card although the economies of scale vary.
  • Recycling allows for the replenishment of natural resources. Recycling – ie composting – food waste allows the nutrients in the waste to be returned to the soil to maintain its fertility. 
  • Recycling materials can avoid the destruction of habitats. Using recycled paper and cardboard avoids the need to cut down trees and the associated destruction of woodland habitats.
  • Recycling reduces pollution. Using recycled plastic to make a bottle cause far less pollution than would be  involved in first extracting and transporting oil, and  then in processing the oil to  turn it into a plastic ready for making into a bottle.
  • Recycling can save water. Making clothes from recycled cotton uses less water than growing cotton to produce new cotton. Recycling paper uses less water than making paper from timber. 
  • Recycling can reduce transport costs and emissions. If the recycling takes place locally, it avoids the costs of transporting raw materials from further away. The converse is also true. Recycling is not energy efficient of the materials to be recycled are sent far away/ overseas to be recycled before being returned as new products. 
  • Recycling only works if people then buy the recycled product. Recycling paper, but never buying and using recycled paper does not help. Recycling plastic bottles only helps if we then buy drinks/ laundry liquids etc in recycled plastic bottles. Recycling aluminium foil only helps if we then buy recycled aluminium foil. We need to close the loop!

Recycling does benefit the environment and does limit some of our production of carbon dioxide emissions. Why then are recycling rates so low? Can we afford financially and environmentally to throw away more then 50% of our household waste?

See also:-

Recycling eco tips

Stewardship of things

The ins and outs of packaging

Zero waste

Author: Judith Russenberger

Environmentalist and theologian, with husband and three grown up children plus one cat, living in London SW14. I enjoy running and drinking coffee - ideally with a friend or a book.

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