Recycling as a waste management options has different pros and cons to other options like landfill and incineration.
In this quick guide, we list those benefits and disadvantages.
Summary – Do The Pros Of Recycling Outweigh The Cons?
In some cities, and for some materials (like precious metals or metals like aluminum), yes. And, in some cities, for some materials, no.
Overall, as a general rule of thumb we do want to reduce and re-use or recycle materials from an environmental perspective first (following the waste hierarchy), before going to landfill or incineration.
This certainly helps with sustainability and protects against resource depletion.
But, landfill and incineration technology has improved over the years, and depending on the waste type, can be better options sometimes from an environmental and economic perspective (glass is one such example of a material that might fit this criteria).
In each city, a lifecycle cost/benefit analysis should be done for each type of waste, weighing up the cost/benefits socially, environmentally, economically and so on, for the short and long term.
Cities like San Francisco are examples of cities that have very high recycling/composting rates comparatively to landfill. But, there are collection fees to offset that, and it has to make sense for a particular city.
Developing countries may not have the luxury of being able to set up efficient recycling facilities due to infrastructure and financial constraints, having to rely on open/uncontained dumping sites.
Pros Of Recycling (Benefits)
- There is less resource depletion as materials are recycled instead of thrown away, and new materials having to be used for new products
- Recycling can use less total energy than other waste management options
- Recycling can have a lower greenhouse gas emissions output than other waste management options
- Recycling means you don’t have to deal with managing the environmental issues of leachate management, and methane and CO2 emissions from landfills
- Recycling means you don’t have to deal with managing the environmental issues of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from incineration
- Recycling processing, in cities like San Francisco, creates up to 20 more jobs than landfill sites
- The market for recycled materials also boosts the economy
- Some materials like metal and aluminum can be recycled an unlimited amount of times – this has benefits like reducing mining for metals. Recycling metals can also be very profitable
- Single stream recycling in some cities is very efficient
- Cities like San Francisco have achieved around an 80% recycling and composting rate (with the rest of waste going to landfill) – showing where the potential for recycling might lie in the future
- Recycling facilities can run as long as needed, whereas landfill sites have a limited time (might be around 100 years) before you have to replace the lining, and eventually pay to close and rehabilitate the site
- Recycling facilities don’t have to worry about issues like overflow, flooding, soil suitability, and bushfire risks that landfills do
- Innovation in the market for recycled materials, such as glass, could boost the economic viability of recycling more widely
Cons Of Recycling (Disadvantages)
- The rate to recycle can be more expensive in some cities than landfill dumping
- Recycling can be a lot less efficient and more time consuming than landfill and incineration in some instances
- Not all materials can be recycled – some materials are non recyclable, too soft, don’t have the right chemical make up etc.
- Some products (like sport drinks with 2 or 3 different types of plastic) are very hard or not very efficient to recycle
- Not all materials make environmental or economic sense to recycle – glass for example is usually more environmentally friendly to make new, and plastic doesn’t have a good economic value as a recyclable when oil prices drop (i.e. recyclers would actually lose money).
- You can only recycle plastic and paper a certain amount of times before the fibres shorten and become weak, and the quality of the recycled material isn’t good enough i.e. there’s a limit to how many times you can recycle some materials, and after that point, they end up going to landfill anyway
- Food waste and organic waste can contaminate plastics and other recyclables – making them non recyclable if not washed first
- Recycling plants with washing facilities can use a lot of water
- Recycling facilities can be very expensive to set up and maintain/operate
- Developing countries often don’t have the funding and infrastructure to set up advanced recycling facilities
- The newest landfill sites with good leachate management and a good methane capture to energy system may be better for some types of waste than recycling
- The newest incineration plants that minimise air pollution and greenhouse gases may be better for some types of waste than recycling (Sweden has some of the newest incineration technology and they actually import waste from other countries)