Recycling as a waste management option has different pros and cons compared to other options like landfill and incineration.
In this quick guide, we list those potential 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 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 in terms of 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.
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.
We can see that recycling is different:
Between different States (within the US for example)
Between different countries (between parts of the US and parts of Europe when talking about glass recycling for example)
With different materials (the process to recycle glass or plastic, is different to the process to recycle stainless steel for example)
With different products (recycling a single type of plastic is different to recycling a sports drink bottle with 3 different types of plastic for example
So, analysing recycling can be nuanced, and can depend on individual circumstances.
Pros Of Recycling (Benefits)
Helps Address Resource Depletion & Resource Recovery
There is less resource depletion, as materials are recycled and re-used rather than being thrown away or virgin materials having to be used for new products (virgin materials such as new metals, or fossil fuels for plastics for example)
Can Help Save Energy
Recycling can use less total energy than other waste management options
Can Help Reduce Emissions
Recycling can have a lower greenhouse gas emissions output than other waste management options
Don’t Have To Deal With Eco Issues That You Do With Landfill
Recycling means you don’t have to deal with managing the environmental issues of leachate management, and methane and CO2 emissions from some landfill sites
Don’t Have To Deal With Eco Issues That You Do With Incineration
Recycling means you don’t have to deal with managing the environmental issues of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from some incineration plants
Can Create Jobs
Recycling processing, in cities like San Francisco, might create up to 20 more jobs than landfill sites – so, it can be better for employment
Recycled Materials Add To The Economy
The market for recycled materials also boosts the economy
Some Materials Are Well Suited To Recycling
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
Can Be Efficient
Single stream recycling in some cities is very efficient
Some Cities Have Already Achieved Very High Recycling Rates
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 Might Have A Longer Lifespan Than Landfill
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 Certain Risk Factors That Landfill Does
Like overflow, flooding, soil suitability, and bushfire risks that landfills do
There Might Be More Potential To Grow & Improve The Recycling Market As A Whole In The Future
Innovation in the market for recycled materials, such as glass, could boost the economic viability of recycling more widely, and also create new markets for recycling i.e. increase demand
There Might Be Potential To Increase Recycling Rates Of Certain Materials Like Glass In Some Countries
Some sources indicate that there is still potential to vastly improve recycling in countries like the US for materials like glass (as long as the cost and time invested has a proportionate or worthwhile tradeoff)
Some Recycling Plants Can Be Cheaper Than Some Incineration Plants
Depending on the technology and systems used, the cost per ton to recycle can be cheaper than to incinerate (however, the most advanced recycling facilities can be quite costly).
Cons Of Recycling (Disadvantages)
Recycling Can Be Only A Temporary Fix For Some Materials
Recycling only delays some materials and products ending up in landfill or being incinerated.
For example, 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 (there’s a limit to how many times you can recycle some materials)
Can Be More Costly Than Some Landfills
Can Be Less Efficient & More Time Intensive
Recycling can be a lot less efficient and more time consuming than landfill and incineration in some instances … especially where incompatible waste is coming in, where a lot of sorting is required, and so on
Not All Materials Can Be Recycled
Some materials are non recyclable, too soft, don’t have the right chemical make up, or have other factors that make them not suitable to be recycled
Product Design Can Be An Issue For Recycling
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 might be more practical to make new from virgin materials, and plastic doesn’t have a good recycled economic value when oil prices drop (i.e. recyclers would actually lose money).
Quality Standards For Recycled Materials May Mean Less Waste Is Recycled
Certain quality or integrity standards in some States or countries may mean that some recycled material doesn’t meet that standard (due to having it’s structure or appearance compromised)
Recycling Can Use Heavy Chemicals
Some recycling processes such as the recycling of some alloy metals like stainless steel can use heavy chemicals to separate and recover certain elements
Can Require Sophisticated and Advanced Technology
Recycling of alloy metals can also require advanced machinery.
Even regular recycled waste in cities like San Francisco can used very advanced and expensive machinery
Food waste and organic waste can contaminate plastics and other recyclables – making them non recyclable if not washed first
Water Footprint To Consider
Recycling plants with washing facilities can use a lot of water
Potentially High Costs
Recycling facilities can be very expensive to set up and maintain/operate in some cities
Developing Countries May Be At A Disadvantage
They often don’t have the funding and infrastructure to set up advanced recycling facilities
Transport Footprint To Consider
Recycling can have a much larger transport footprint (transporting between different facilities for collecting, sorting, processing and refining, supplying, and re-using materials) than other waste management processes
Landfill Can In Some Ways Be Better Environmentally Than Recycling
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
Incineration Can In Some Ways Be Better Environmentally 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)
Recycling vs Landfill vs Incineration vs Composting: Comparison