Recycling is not about rubbish: it’s valuable commodities you’re chucking in your wheelie bin, according to sustainability expert Marcus Gover, not rubbish.
Myths persist about recycling, with some people still claiming that material in recycling bins is secretly sent to landfill rather than recycled and made into new products. (See episode one of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s TV show if you don’t believe me.) But the truth is that recycling is more important than it has ever been, with the global population at 7 billion and rising, and a growing middle class in developing countries hungry for the same consumer pleasures that richer countries’ citizens already enjoy.
“We need to be really clear that we know we’re on a planet with dwindling resources,” says Fearnley-Whittingstall, warning that the amount we waste is tantamount to an “environmental catastrophe”. While he is referring to food waste, his point holds for all the other materials we consume – the oil that makes our plastic water bottles, the trees that make our Amazon delivery’s cardboard packaging and so forth. Everything we buy and use has to come from somewhere, and that means finite resources being dug up, often at great environmental and social cost.
“Everyone knows the environmental benefits of recycling: it conserves resources by putting them back to productive use and, even more importantly, it avoids the pollution caused by having to extract, mine and process new resources,” says Annie Leonard, producer of the viral YouTube film Story of Stuff, and now head of Greenpeace USA.
That extraction can not only cause local environmental problems but international harm too. All extraction requires energy and so – until we take the carbon out of our energy systems – that means more emissions and more global warming. “If you recycle plastic rather than make it from oil, it’s saving about one tonne of CO2 for each tonne of plastic that’s recycled,” says Gover. “All the UK’s recycling is probably avoiding around 18m tonnes CO2 equivalent [total UK emissions in 2014 were 520.5m tonnes CO2e]. It’s a significant contribution. It’s like taking 5 million cars off the road.” Metals in particular are very recyclable. Making the aluminium in your can of fizzy drink from bauxite is a very energy-intensive process – to the point where it’s much cheaper for soft drinks companies to buy recycled aluminium.
Recycling advocates – which should surely be all of us – are increasingly likely to talk up the economic importance of recycling. EU commissioners have even warned that Europe faces another recession if we don’t get better at reusing and recycling our resources. “Recycling has huge job creation potential, creating 10 to 200 times the jobs created by burying and burning all that stuff,” says Leonard. Gover argues that recycling more in the UK – recycling has flatlined in England in recent years – is vital to the country’s economic growth. “We talk about the UK getting its economic growth back, and resources are the fuel for the engine of recovery,” he says.
Recycling also keeps stuff out of landfill, where it can have further environmental impacts. As well as causing local contamination – researchers have found abandoned UK landfills leaching ammonium into rivers – putting rubbish in landfill can exacerbate climate change too. Anything biodegradable that breaks down in a landfill, such as newspapers and food waste, generates methane, a greenhouse gas that is much more powerful than CO2.
We are running out of landfill, too, with just 484,370 cubic meters left in England at the end of 2014, down from 715,000 at the turn of the millennium.
So it’s important for the economy, for our remaining wildernesses that are yet to be mined and logged, and for the planet’s atmosphere and climate. But is it important to you as an individual? Well, if you’d prefer your council tax to be spent on local libraries rather than ever-rising landfill taxes, it’s worth caring about. Gover says that some of its most successful promotional materials communicate to people that recycling more reduces costs for their local authorities.
Recycling is also one of the few tangible and immediate things that anyone can do to minimise their environmental impact. “Recycling has a personal benefit; it gives us a chance to align our values and our actions, which feels good, and inspires us to do more,” says Leonard.
Of course, any schoolchild will tell you that while recycling is important, it’s not as important as two other “Rs” – reducing and reusing. As Leonard puts it: “We shouldn’t start with recycling, but only do it after we have exhausted the environmentally preferable options of reducing and reusing stuff. Being able to recycle something is not a licence to carelessly consume, but is a last resort if we honestly cannot have avoided, reused, repaired or shared the stuff.”