Recycling: Environmental Saviour or Guilt Assuager?

If you’re anything like me you get this warm, fuzzy feeling when you take out your recyclables. We’ve come a long way from the mid ‘90s both here in Australia and world-wide which is when recycling became cheaper than landfill disposal (source). Here in Australia we do a pretty good job, with around 60% of our waste being recycled. How warranted is the warm, fuzzy feeling we get from recycling though? In many ways recycling is a misnomer with most recyclable products being recycled in to poorer quality ones and after one or two cycles having to be sent to landfill (down-cycled rather than recycled). Don’t get me wrong – recycling is still better than using something once and putting it in a big hole in the ground to decompose over the next millennium but it’s by no means the holy grail of the circular economy.

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Statistics on US Recycling (source)

KgRight now, in most parts of the world recyclables fall in to four main categories: paper, plastics, metals and glass.
We’ve got a really good handle on recycling paper products and it’s relatively easy to do. Once the paper is separated from the other recyclables it is mixed with hot water and turned to pulp. Then the pulp is made in to other paper products again. Nice closed cycle. Except there’s always contaminates so the quality of the recycled product is rarely as good as the virgin material. Then there’s the net energy input for transporting and processing the goods. On the scale of emissions released, recycling paper creates many fewer emissions than creating a paper-based product from scratch. It also reduces the felling of our much needed trees.

From a Jiuntu perspective, paper recycling gets a big tick.

The same cannot be said for plastics. There are 7 main types of plastics in common circulation, not all of which can be recycled. The biggest issue with recycling plastics is that the identification numbers don’t mean anything unless you do some research. For anyone interested here’s a good resource for understanding the different types. This is important because many of the plastic containers used for household and kitchen products contain carcinogens, and hormone disruptors such as bisphenol-A (BPA) amongst other nasties. The health effects of being exposed to these chemicals is under continued study but they are certainly worth avoiding. I try to buy only BPA-free plastic or glass reusable containers for this reason.


Several of the 7 types of plastic are within a sub-group called thermo-plastics. They change chemical composition when heated which allows us to make plastic widgets of all different shapes and sizes. When heated, these plastics release toxic emissions which makes recycling thermo-plastics not so environmentally friendly. Then there’s the embodied energy in transport and processing of the product. Plastic recycling, as with paper, is not a 100% effective solution since the quality of the product degrades with each cycle. Most plastic bottles, for example, are down-cycled in to furniture, construction materials or carpet fibres. Once they’re down-cycled once, that’s it. Off to landfill. Then there’s the political and economic implications of relying on a refined oil product.

Metals are a truly recyclable product since the quality of the material can be maintained in the recycling process. Whilst recycling metals is still an energy intensive process, it is far more efficient than using virgin materials which need to be mined, refined and processed with transport between each step. Aluminium is the most energy intensive metal to obtain due to the high electricity requirement for separating the aluminium from its base mineral, bauxite ore. It is estimated that recycling aluminium requires only 5% of the energy required to make new aluminium (source) and recycling steel requires a quarter of the energy to make new steel (source). Here in Australia we only recycle 30% of our steel cans and 67% of our aluminium cans so we still have a lot of work to do. Make sure you recycle your used beer cans and fish cans people! (source)

Glass is one of the safest packaging materials for foods and has been used for years for this reason. It is fully recyclable and the infrastructure is well established for processing glass. It is, however, significantly heavier than a plastic equivalent which can be a deterrent to using it for portability. This also means significantly more energy is required in transport. It is also more energy intensive than plastic to manufacture due to the requirement of large furnaces which must be kept very hot for the duration of the process.


That warm and fuzzy feeling from chucking our recyclables in the recycling bin is dissipating quickly – reduce, reuse, downcycle doesn’t have the catchy alliteration Jack Johnson got us hooked on. Where does that leave us if we want to improve our sustainability factor? We need to focus on the first two: reduce, reuse. Since I started composting all my organic waste I’ve noticed most of what I put in the general waste is plastic food packaging. A lot of this can be avoided simply by refusing disposable products and bringing our own reusable containers and bags to the shops. The virtues of reusable coffee cups are well understood but why should we limit our waste reduction to coffee cups?

Righto, you bring your own bags to the supermarket. Well done. But what else could you do? For the past few months I’ve been visiting the supermarket with my own reusable containers. Apart from the strange looks I initially received I’ve been blown away by the positive response and it’s led to some really interesting conversations. I’m sure most people think I’m crazy, but they support my insanity.Picture1 It’s pretty simple, I keep my (BPA free) containers in the car so they’re always there when I need them. It’s really not that hard! I’ve also started shopping at bulk food suppliers such as The Source for grains and nuts so as long as I bring my containers there is no packaging needed. This is the best way to cut down on the amount of recyclable and non-recyclable packaging that goes through our household.

Whilst this is a really easy and effective solution, it still requires preparation which most people won’t be bothered with – where’s the incentive? Ireland has implemented some really effective and painless ways to reduce their waste. In 2002 the Irish implemented a 15 cent levy on every plastic bag in the country. Plastic bags in circulation reduced by over 95%!! Now, I’m pretty sure the vast majority of people can afford 15 cents per bag but that insignificant financial disincentive was enough to have a huge effect on people’s use of that resource. Some Irish counties have taken the financial incentive idea to the next level by implementing ‘Weigh and Pay’ systems for waste and recycling. Basically, you buy tags for a particular weight of rubbish and you put the tags on the bags you throw out. No tags, no pick up. To be fair this wouldn’t work everywhere but I think it’s a much more equitable way of paying for waste than through council rates because it directly (financially) incentivises waste reduction. In some parts of South America there’s a small financial reward for returning glass bottles to the manufacturer which are then washed and reused rather than recycled. This is a much more sustainable option that recycling and provides an incentive for the customer to return. Whilst the economics of this system work in South America, it may not be suitable everywhere. In South Australia and some states in the US there’s a refund for bottles worth a few cents, which is great but why isn’t this the case in all jurisdictions?

The Europeans have also found a neat solution to the problem of electronic waste. E-waste is a problem because it requires a great deal of effort to separate the different material streams for recycling, and many products contain heavy and precious metals which can contaminate dumping grounds. In 2003 the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive became European Law. This puts the responsibility on the product retailers and distributors to implement take-back schemes for electronic goods when new products are purchased. This also puts the financial burden of transporting and recycling the used goods on the retailers and distributors but it’s built in to the cost of new products. Essentially, the negative externality of responsible disposal is incorporated in to the cost of the new product, making the system more equitable on all participants in the value chain.

Perhaps we can implement a similar system for reusable containers. Can you imagine being slapped with a small charge if you don’t bring your reusable coffee cup or milk carton to the shops? Would you be happier if you saved a few cents on your purchase for bringing your own container? I think we would see a huge reduction in disposables/recyclables in circulation and this would get us a good bit closer to the circular economy of which many of us dream. In terms of maximum impact, least effort there aren’t many better ways to reduce our environmental footprint.

Remember: Reduce, Reuse, Downcycle.

Thanks for playing.

3 thoughts on “Recycling: Environmental Saviour or Guilt Assuager?

  1. 60% of waste being recycled? That’s impressive, Australia!
    Here in México we only recycle 28% of our waste; while this number has improved significantly in the past 10 years, we’re the third plastic container consumer country world wide, which is terrifying (we´re also one of the top PET recycling countries, but I guess we HAVE to be, hey).
    I already bring my own bags to the supermarket, but I’ve been meaning to bring my own reusable containers as well for a while now. I’ll follow your lead and give it a try next time.
    I’m really enjoying the posts here, keep it up!

    P.S. 3 is a magic number, indeed!


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