In this guide, we examine whether recycling might be good or bad for the environment.
We look at how recycling benefits the environment for different types of waste (like plastics, metal and paper), especially compared to other waste management options like landfills and incineration.
Summary – Is Recycling Good Or Bad For The Environment?
Some waste is recyclable, while some waste is not – so, it’s a reality that some waste simply has to go to landfill, and that we can’t recycle everything.
But, overall, recycling seems to be a more environmentally friendly option than land fill and incineration for some items and materials (and even sub types of material within a material class – like white, brown and newspaper for example) that are able to be recycled. Plastic is one other example, although, with plastic, some studies indicate that incineration is more environmentally friendly for some plastic items.
Environmental factors we might consider when assessing eco friendliness are greenhouse gas emissions, energy use, and local pollution
(there’s also considerations like water footprint of the different waste management options – but these considerations are outside the scope of this article)
Landfills are responsible for emissions from organic waste, leachate from all types of waste (which causes a range of pollution to air, water and land), and mismanaged waste like single use plastic can get out into the ocean and other water sources (in developing countries with unsecure landfill sites in particular).
Incineration is responsible for both air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions – from the burning of different types of waste.
By recycling, there is an energy and water footprint to consider – but we avoid most of these other environmental impacts that other waste management options leave us with.
There’s also the eco/sustainability footprint of new products made from recycled materials to consider too – there can be savings in energy for materials like stainless steel for example.
So, overall, it might be said that recycling is more environmentally friendly for some types of waste and materials, but not others (due to practicality, economics and other factors).
*Note – when looking at the eco considerations of recycling, we also need to balance that out by looking at the practical and economic considerations of recycling too i.e. whether certain materials and products can be recycled, and how economically feasible it is to do so.
How Recycling Might Be Good, Or Bad For The Environment
Below, you can see an analysis on how recycling different types of materials might be good or bad for the environment.
You can check out an environmental analysis of recycling, landfill and incineration at https://ourworldindata.org/faq-on-plastics#what-are-the-environmental-impacts-of-landfills.
They compare Global Warming Potential, and Energy Use of these three waste management options across a range of different plastic waste types.
What they note is that recycling ‘had the lowest global warming potential and energy use across nearly all of the studies. From an environmental perspective, recycling is usually the best option’.
So, at least when it comes to plastic, recycling might be the best option.
- Turning recycled aluminum cans into new cans uses 95% less energy than making new ones
- With efficient recycling, metals can be used over and over again, minimizing the need to mine and process virgin materials while decreasing energy and water requirements
- Some studies suggest that recycling metals are between two and 10 times more energy efficient than smelting the metals from virgin ore.
- At the same time, extraction alone currently accounts for seven percent of the world’s energy consumption, with emissions contributing significantly to climate change
- When it comes to recycled paper – “recycled paper can, but not always, have an environmental advantage”
- It depends on the type of paper – white paper, newspaper, brown paperboard and cardboard, and also how the virgin paper product is made.
- Some paper products will have a similar or lesser environmental footprint to make new, whilst others might be better to be recycled.
- Also, some recycled paper (like white office paper) can be expensive to make – so there are financial issues to consider as well.
- Something else to note with paper, is that it might only be able to be recycled around seven times on average before it can’t be recycled anymore – so there’s practicality concerns too.
Asterisks On Recycling
Recycling is not a perfect option even though it might be more environmentally friendly for some types of waste. We have to consider these asterisks about it:
Some materials and items simply aren’t recyclable – so they have to go to landfill or incineration
Recycling can lead to products that are inferior, or lower quality, through the recycling process. It might be better to landfill, and create new virgin materials and items in some cases
Not all materials and items are profitable to recycle – only some are
Recycling has it’s limitations – some recyclable materials can only be recycled once or twice before they can’t be recycled anymore and have to be sent to landfill
When considering whether recycling is the best environmental option – you have to consider what the eco footprint is of making the product new/using a virgin product is – so the individual production process of different materials and types of items/products comes into account here. An example of this is how white office paper is made vs newspaper vs brown cardboard paperboard
Recycling and waste management systems are not the same in every country or even city. It depends on the country or city as to what the most eco friendly option might be. For example, some cities might send a far higher proportion of their recycling straight to land fill than others. In another example, some cities might not have the facilities or infrastructure to sort and recycle certain types or recyclable waste, or to clean soiled recyclable waste. It can depend on where the waste is being recycled
These are just some of many asterisks to consider with waste disposal and recycling when assessing eco friendliness.