Jan 26, 2018 · 8 min read

Is recycling wasted time?

The idea of recycling is one of the green ideas which is constantly present in our daily life. Separating trash, reading and checking certificates, buying recycled products, upcycling as a wind up of recycling, reusable water bottles and dishes, no electrical trash dumped on the landfill, minimized disposable gadgets, no poisonous chemistry dropped in the sea (without being aware of the consequences) like everyone saw it in the little but funny dystopia in “The Simpsons”. The campaigns aiming for awareness towards recycling did a very elaborate job.

It is true that in daily life the lion’s share is done if you separate trash carefully but there are still other things to consider. The efficiency of recycling is a controversially discussed topic. Many times representatives of waste management departments try to explain that recycling PET and other kinds of plastics is just not worth it and that it is more crucial to recycle other products. Plastic is, compared to other materials, the smallest problem.

So is that correct or do they just try to get rid of the irksome work?

To answer that question, which I cannot promise to be able to to a full extend, I divided the incentives and perspectives of recycling in three categories:

  • Recycling to prevent environmental hazard
  • Recycling to preserve resources
  • Recycling as a business

The most crucial aim from an environmental point view is to minimize, ideally eliminate, every product that can be hazardous for any ecosystem. Therefore the proper disposal of electrical gadgets and damaging chemicals (mercury, nickel, CFC..) or the reuse of potential damaging products is highest priority. Especially batteries, light bulbs and heavy metals are to be disposed or reused properly.

Plastic is a very important topic as well, since the debris can affect the marine environment (see “Ocean Acidification”) and some kinds of plastic can be hazardous for human beings as well. It is important to pledge for proper recycling, since the recycling method “thermal recycling” means incinerating and can pollute the environment with toxic emissions, if it is not properly regulated.

Waste swamping countries and becoming part of daily life

A sub-aim to follow the primary ambitions is to recycle everything, that is environmentally harmful to produce newly. Due to mining, fracking or other similar procedures environmental issues can arise and the logical consequence is to minimize the production and reuse already existing goods.

On the contrary, recycling as a business is more focused on efficiency. Arguing that high efficiency means more recycling and that this is beneficial for the environment is the attempt to a symbiosis of environmental and business incentives. And still, there are differences to make. The most efficient goods to recycle are paper, aluminium and rare resources.

Plastic is again a more complex issue because of the unstable oil prices. Recycling plans can be profitable for time span but at some point it will not. That means that a long term strategy and bigger investments are too vague and not promising predictable results. Nevertheless, in the long run, fossil fuel resources are diminishing and vice versa the prices are increasing, which makes recycling plastic a solution for the future.

In order to make recycling of other products attractive to a business, the efficiency has to be improved. Therefore technical development and ongoing academic research are more crucial than ever. Furthermore, the energy costs of the recycling process have to be considered as well. Recycling with high energy consumption are both, not profitable and more harmful to the environment since it is unclear which resource is being used to produce the energy. The manufacturers of electric cars struggle with the same problem since the energy production in many countries is not green enough to provide the cars “clean energy” and therefore it invalidates the environmental argumentation for electric cars.

A promotional video for single stream recycling machines in America from a recycling business.

There will always be opposed voices but sooner or later, within technical improvement, there will be many cases where economic and environmental expectations meet. Nevertheless, the compromises between environmentalism and business will always depend on the current awareness of the topics in society and lobbyism. Therefore the balance of these compromises can easily shift to one side.

A good example for a well working recycling system exists in Sweden where the state is buying trash to keep the recycling plants going and gain the biggest profit.

Saving resources is the aim that connects economical and environmental the best, most probably. The overall idea to save finite resources is the foundation for more efficiency and a long living industry from an economical perspective while environmentalists hope for minimized destruction of nature. Nevertheless, recycling to save resources is something that is desirable from every perspective.

The resources that have the highest priority are also the ones where there is the overall shortest supply or where it is a very elaborative process to craft the virgin material. That would include nowadays precious metals (coltan, silicium etc.) because of its few mines and the elaborative work to find new ones that remind one of finding the needle in haystack as well as the social problems resulting out of the mining and the following bad publicity.

Recycling paper and cardboard is also a good way to save resources since decreasing forest areas is complicating the production of virgin material and the recycling process needs very little energy compared to new production. Paper and cardboard is also good commodity since countries like China, that crave for raw materials, don’t have enough resources on their own to satisfy their demand.

Recycling of plastic is not really efficient since there are several types of plastic and each of them needs different procedures to be properly recycled. As well, some of the plastics cannot be recycled in a very efficient way. Only 4 percent of the overall fossil fuel consumption is used for plastics, which may seem as a comparable small problem to the other fields where fossil fuel is used.

An overview on what happens with the different kinds of plastic. Plastic #7 implies any other kind of plastic and is most probably the biggest problem for recycling plants

However, also here technology is making baby steps and creating hope that there will be efficient and reasonable future solutions. One example is the attempt to recycle polyethylene (PET) to petrol.

Aluminium is as well desirable recycling material. Even though it is the most abundant material, it is better to recycle because the crafting of the aluminium as we know it know is a long, complicated and energy consuming process since aluminium as such doesn’t exist as a raw material nature.

The energy consumption I have just mentioned is also a big factor. Water is one of the most important resources many people don’t think of if we talk about recycling. Water is very crucial for a lot of recycling processes (e.g. cooling down machines, chemical processes, etc.) as well as it is important to recycle water as such. In many places on the earth there is already water shortage and ongoing desertification as well as increasing demand of water for agriculture make the situation more precarious. Furthermore, in order to recycle energy is necessary and this is again raises the question how the energy is produced. It seems to be a similar problem (and solution) like the issue with the electric cars. One part of the solution of recycling, could be electric cars in fact. Many journalists point out that the transport and picking up of the trash demands a lot of time, money, and especially fossil fuels.

Statistics on the efficiency of different reyclable goods

Another aspect, that could contribute to the solution of the overall dilemma of recycling is the design of products. Many products are not designed to be recycled. If the aspect recycling is considered in the very first step of a product development, the chance that this product is actually going to be recycled increases. It starts with trying to use easy to separate package and containers for products (a common problem is the polystyrene foam in coffee cups) and ends with the visual design that reminds you to recycle or reuse or shows that this product can be recycled at certain places. “Der grüne Punkt“, the German nationwide plastic recycling initiative since 1991 that is also implemented in other EU countries, is a good example for that even though it doesn’t match the expectations of the customers and most probably of the initiators for several reasons.

It seems as if recycling is on a turning point or if not, needs to reach that turning point. Simply putting trash into different bins doesn’t seem enough anymore.

It is important to separate the materials which are already frequently recycled such as aluminium, paper, additionally batteries and other products containing precious metal (very often the companies or electro shops are offering to recycle these things).

Nevertheless, the future of recycling relies on technical development. Improved sorting procedures for plastic, more efficient procedures of recycling, emission free transport and recycling and development in product design of recyclable products. Universities for applied science, especially in environmental science, are popping up everywhere in Europe and the job to “deal with trash” earns a more honourable reputation.

Promotional showing that a job in waste management is from value and deserves a good reputation

Along with the technical development, education is an important tool. Not only making people aware but also teaching the nuances between the different materials with the aim to enable someone to make the environmentally “right” decision individually. While graphics in this article are an attempt to give a short overview on different topics of recycling, it is imperative to remember that reusing containers, bottles, etc. or reducing, is a very easy way to escape the whole problematic of recycling. A good recycling system shouldn’t encourage to produce more waste but to give the existing waste a purpose.

Besides the individual level, governmental and economic initiatives (like the prohibition of plastic bags on Hawaii 2015) can influence the development of recycling. Educational programs of the government or school classes about environmental sciences including recycling issues raise awareness and makes critical and reflective thinking about this topic part of daily life.

“Recycling is not dead” is an article by Patty Moore that tries to give positive prospects for recycling in America. I also believe that recycling is not dead. Recycling is and definitely will be part in a progressive, “SMART”, and environmental aware community. But in the same time, the shape of it has to change guided by innovations and governmental action. Prioritising different recyclable goods and developing more efficient recycling methods, starting with the design of products and ending with improved sorting machines, are possible features of the new shape of recycling.

Recycling is a tool, like a screwdriver. It is just time to adjust the tool that the screwdriver fits to the screws again.

Written by Milan Maushart


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