The waste that humans create is, according to some estimates expected to exceed 3 billion tonnes per year over the next 30 years. With current recycling rates as low as 4% in low-income countries and still only at around 30% for high-income countries there is clearly much more that we can all do to increase those numbers. This will help to reduce pollution, limit resources used, and help prevent such large amounts of waste from going to landfill or ending up in our oceans. Everyone must do their part by ensuring their knowledge on recycling is relevant and up to date such as what can be recycled and how to recycle waste efficiently and effectively.
What Can Be Recycled?
Many of the items that we use every day can and should be recycled. Below is an overview of the materials and products we use that can be recycled including how, why, and where they can be recycled. It is important to ensure your items are as clean as possible before you recycle them to avoid contamination. You should also separate your recyclables and comply with other requests as directed by your municipality or other recycling facilities.
Clothing and other textiles are easy to recycle. It is important to recycle natural fibers to avoid more use of virgin fabrics – which use more land, water, and people power as well as energy to be grown and harvested.
Synthetic fabrics should also be recycled as these are made from plastics which breakdown very slowly when put into landfill not only taking up space but, when they do breakdown, release micro-plastics into the environment risking harm to both people and wildlife.
Fabric can be recycled in myriad ways and its use is increasing in areas that you might not initially think of; the building trade for example.
Clothes and fabrics that are re-usable should be donated or sold for others to use. Clothing and other fabrics that are no longer usable in their current form can be turned into other things such as:
- Rags and other cleaning materials
- Insulation for housing
- Sports equipment
- PPE (personal protective equipment)
- New clothing
- Upholstery, carpets, and rugs
- Soundproofing materials
Glass has the advantage of not losing quality through the recycling process. It can also be recycled over and over again.
Despite it being 100% recyclable and being relatively easy for households and businesses to recycle with curbside pickups in some places or local facilities to recycle glass in others not all countries perform the same when it comes to this easily recyclable material:
- The USA recycles around 30% of its glass
- The UK recycles around 50% of its glass
- Australia recycles around 60% of its glass
- Some European countries such as Switzerland and Finland are getting close to total glass recycling with over 90% of their glass being recycled
Despite the process for recycling glass requiring high amounts of energy, as it has to be melted at high temperatures, the recycling process still requires far less energy than creating glass from raw materials. It is estimated that recycling a tonne of glass saves around 250kg of CO2 emissions being emitted into the atmosphere and saves over a tonne of natural resources.
Plastic waste and the difficulties presented when it comes to disposing and recycling it has been a topic on everyone’s lips over the last few years. With levels of awareness about the harm plastics cause to wildlife and particularly marine life growing and the increasingly widespread knowledge of just how much plastic there is in our oceans. People the world over have been looking at ways to begin tackling this epic problem. Reducing the number of single-use plastics created in the first place is important but for the plastic already in existence, recycling is key and is the only solution for the billions of tonnes of plastic already choking our oceans.
Recycling Symbols and What They Mean
Plastic is categorized into 7 types to help consumers to be aware of how to recycle it. The numbers are shown within the triangular recycling symbol. This is what the numbers mean:
- PET or PETE: Polyethylene. This is the most easily recyclable plastic and if your municipality offers curbside recycling this is the kind of plastic they will collect. These are plastics like water and soft drinks bottles.
- HDPE: high-density polyethylene. This is also usually collected if you have a curbside collection as it is relatively easy to recycle. This kind of plastic is often what milk comes in or cleaning products and yogurts.
- PVC: Polyvinyl Chloride. Thicker plastics used in detergent bottles and plumbing pipes for example. This plastic is more difficult to recycle and not usually collected with curb-side recycling schemes.
- LDPE: Low-density polyethylene. Thin plastics such as those found in shopping bags and squeezy bottles/tubes. Some stores provide recycling facilities for shopping bags.
- PP: Polypropylene. This plastic can be found among your household items such as ketchup bottles and medication bottles. It can be recycled and is usually included in curbside collections.
- PS: Polystyrene or Styrofoam. Often found as packing materials or in takeaway drinks cups this kind of plastic is very difficult to recycle and if put in with recyclables could make the whole batch unusable.
- Other: this covers most other types of plastic and is usually unrecyclable.
Although excellent for helping consumers understand what kinds of plastic they are buying and using these symbols can also lead to confusion. Despite what the symbols on the plastics you buy might be, different areas will collect and can recycle different types of plastics so you must always read individual guides rather than relying on the numbers on your plastic items. Failure to do so can result in not only your recyclables being disposed of another way but of all the other recyclables in that load or batch being discarded as well.
Innovations in Recycling Plastics
Many companies and environmentally minded scientists are coming up with new ways to recycle the enormous amounts of waste that we produce. These innovations are especially important when it comes to plastics as so much of the plastic we use is, despite what the labeling might suggest, difficult to recycle. Companies such as PureCycle Technologies, who can remove colors, odors, and other contaminants from plastic waste turning it into completely re-usable, high-quality plastic are on track to have many worldwide and fully operational facilities over the next few years. Other companies such as Agilyx break down traditionally hard to recycle plastics right down to their molecular level when they can then be recycled into other things. They see plastics as being, like metal and glass, endlessly recyclable.
Recycling metal is not only good for the environment but is also economically worthwhile as the industry creates a huge number of jobs and in some countries including 3 of the top 5 scrap metal exporters; USA, Russia, and the UK, it provides a massive boost to the economy even in otherwise economically troubled times.
Almost all metals can be recycled endlessly and usually with no reduction in quality.
Using recycled steel, for example, not only reduces the need for mining and the environmental destruction which comes with it but reduces air pollution by over 80%, water pollution by over 70%, and uses nearly half as much water.
The largest use of aluminum is in drink cans with the world using around 180 billion of them annually. Around 70% of them are recycled. The recycling of aluminum not only reduces the need for mining of this resource but requires a great deal less energy. This is because the melting point of the raw material is around 900°c whereas recycled aluminum has a much lower melting point of around 650°c.
There are many household items made of metal that are completely or partly recyclable. Their metal components can be retrieved rather than going into landfill or being incinerated. Sometimes these are not recycled because people don’t know what to do with them or because they might not realize that the metal in an item can be retrieved and recycled.
Many items which are largely made of or contain metal are also electrical items and/or batteries detailed below.
Electrical Items and Batteries
Worldwide around 50 million tonnes of electric waste is generated every year and is increasing. Electronic items usually contain batteries either of the built-in variety or the more familiar batteries that we buy and replace ourselves. The pollution that emanates from batteries when they are not disposed of properly can have severe consequences on the environment; leaching chemicals into the water table, making it hazardous to human health as well as wildlife.
Electronic items also contain many precious metals and other substances often termed ‘rare earth’ that can be reused reducing the need to mine for them which not only uses vast amounts of energy but also is responsible for the destruction of virgin rainforests such as the amazon and marine habitats including coral reefs worldwide. The amount of waste, including highly toxic waste produced by this type of mining is enormous. Leaks can and have caused the deaths of many people and the devastation of local environments but the longer-term consequences to the wider environment are as yet unknown.
Many people still do not appropriately recycle their electronic items. This is often because:
1) People are not aware of where to recycle them
2) Sometimes people are not aware that smaller electronic items (such a small toys) can/should be recycled
3) People are not aware of the enormous level of damage that electronics can have when they are disposed of in landfill.
For example, did you know that electronic waste is classed as toxic waste? This is because it can release dangerous so-called heavy metals into the environment including water systems including lead, mercury, and arsenic. Not only is electrical waste classed as toxic it is also estimated to be around 70% of all the toxic waste currently in landfills across the USA.
Shockingly, half of all food produced is lost or wasted. Although much of this happens at the agricultural, production, and retail levels households are responsible for a large section of this waste too. In Europe and North America, each person averages around 95-115kg of food waste annually.
Food waste that is sent to landfill decomposes without oxygen in a process called anaerobic digestion. This contributes to the production of large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane gas. Methane is even worse than carbon dioxide for locking heat in the atmosphere and therefore contributing to climate change.
Instead of putting food waste in with the rest of your garbage an excellent way to recycle your wasted food is to compost it.
In some places, the local municipality collects food waste for large-scale composting. Even if this is not practiced by your local waste collection services you can still compost your food waste.
Composting is easy and a great way to put nutrients into the soil in your garden reducing the need for chemical fertilizers and saving you money.
If you are unable to compost your food waste yourself it might be possible to use a composting facility near you; either a large-scale composter or even one belonging to a neighbor, friend, local school, or allotment. Ask around and see who wants extras scraps for their compost.
Make Your Own Composter
Making a compost bin is easy.
- Choose your bin – you can use a plastic bin or laundry hamper, wooden pallets, garden lattice (the sort used for training plants), you can buy compost bins in sizes to suit all gardens and in some areas, your municipality will offer these at a discount to encourage home composting as part of waste reduction or you can simply dedicate a part of your garden to be a compost heap.
- Ensure that air can circulate, either by having air holes, enabling you to give it a turning and a prodding with a garden fork. Some composter designs can even be rotated.
- Add a layer of soil/dirt
- Start adding your food scraps – vegetable peelings, uncooked fruit and vegetables, tea leaves, coffee grounds, eggshells even cardboard ripped up small, and of course your garden waste such as lawn clippings.
- In a few months begin using your homemade compost to restore nutrients to your garden.
Yes. It is so easy you will wonder why you never made one before.
In the UK nearly 80% of paper is recycled, in the US it is estimated that around 42% of paper is recycled and in China, the recycling rate for paper is around 50%.
Despite the increase in digital media and a massive reduction in printed newspapers, 250 million trees are cut down simply for US newspapers annually.
Estimates suggest that around 4 billion trees are cut down worldwide for paper every year.
Paper is easy to recycle and is one of the most recycled household items in both the US and the UK as well as other countries around the globe.
When recycling your paper it is important to ensure that you don’t mix waxed papers, plasticized papers, foils, glitters, or other contaminants in with your recyclable paper. These types of contaminants can cause a large amount of other paper which would be fine to recycle to be sent to landfill, incinerated, or otherwise disposed of.
Recycling for Kids
Getting children involved in recycling not only helps to create environmentalists of the future. It is a valuable lesson that children should learn about the impact that they and all of us have on our fellow human beings, on wildlife, the environment, and on the planet as a whole.
Many children now learn about recycling in school, so by encouraging your children to recycle at home you are also aiding in their learning!
The fact is that it is children who will be inheriting our planet, so it is in their interest to learn how to do their best to protect it.
Fun Ways to Get Kids Involved in Recycling
- Do a recycling quiz for all the family; what items go in what bin?
- Get kids to make fun signs for the recycling bins for their school, to put up in the local park (with permission) or local library encouraging people to recycle
- Help your children to write letters to your councilors, representatives, or politicians so they realize you are never too young to have your voice heard
- Let them have fun squishing cardboard and plastic
- Build a wormery to show kids how worms help turn food waste into compost. How to build a wormery
- Get a large, clean glass jar or see-through plastic container
- Cover the table or other surface with newspaper
- Put a layer of sand at the bottom of the jar or container (around 1cm)
- Add a thicker layer of soil, then another thin layer of sand, and then a final thick layer of soil making sure that you have a large space at the top of the jar (around 5cm)
- Collect worms from your garden (or buy some from an angling bait shop) and put them in the jar/container. You can use Earthworms or Tiger worms.
- Add uncooked vegetable waste, scraps and peelings, over-ripe fruit, tea leaves, and coffee grounds
- Put the lid on (with air holes) and cover the outside with black paper so that it is dark for the worms.
- Ensure it stays damp; not too dry or too wet and put it somewhere cool but not too cold.
- Leave the worms to get on with the composting process and see how they are doing after a couple of weeks.
Recycling’s Bad Reputation
Particularly in recent years recycling had got a bad reputation. This in many ways has not been unwarranted. The sad and unwelcome truth that much of the waste that we, particularly in the US and the UK, have diligently (or in some cases not so diligently) washed and separated and sent off to be recycled had ended up being sent abroad initially to China but then as China began refusing our often contaminated waste. So then it was sent to other countries such as Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Senegal. Some estimates suggest that of all the ‘recyclables’ that are shipped overseas anywhere between 20% and 70 % are unsuitable for recycling and so disposed of by other means. Once in these countries, it often ends up being burned, landfilled, or dumped in the sea not at great cost to the environment and local communities as well.
Although recycling is not a complete or perfect solution to the problem of waste and its ecological impacts it certainly has its part to play. Yes, people do need to be more aware of the waste they create in the first place and big business needs to be more responsible. Its place in the three R’s of reduce reuse and recycle is well warranted it is third and so it should be. Reduction and reusing should take priority. However, recycling is also an essential part of protecting our planet for wildlife and future generations.
What Can You Do?
Everybody has a responsibility to our planet and future generations to do their bit to ensure that recycling becomes more widespread than it is currently. There are many things that we can all do and improve to make this a reality:
- Educate yourself; be aware of what is recyclable and what isn’t, where you can recycle things locally to you and what you need to do to ensure your recyclables aren’t contaminating the batch
- Thoroughly clean your recyclables and follow other instructions to avoid contaminating recyclable materials
- Buy recycled items; the more there is a market for recycled materials the more money goes into the industry so the better it becomes
- When you are out think about how you can recycle your waste; if you can’t recycle it where you are don’t just put it in the general waste take it home with you and recycle it there
- Keep a rubbish bin/bag AND a recycling bin/bag in your car
- Remember what materials can be recycled endlessly such as glass and metal and use your purchasing power to cut down on the materials that can only be recycled a couple of times such as plastics
- Let your representatives, politicians, and municipalities know that you want more recycling
Global Waste to Grow by 70 Percent by 2050 Unless Urgent Action is Taken: World Bank Report
Marine plastics | IUCN
National Overview: Facts and Figures on Materials, Wastes, and Recycling | Facts and Figures about Materials, Waste and Recycling | US EPA
Paper Recycling Facts – University of Southern Indiana (usi.edu)
Plastic Recycling Codes & Symbols Explained – Plastic Soup Foundation
Recycling in the U.S. Is Broken. How Do We Fix It? (columbia.edu)
Reducing the Impact of Wasted Food by Feeding the Soil and Composting | Sustainable Management of Food | US EPA
Scrap metal | Why recycle? | BMRA (recyclemetals.org)
Three ways making a smartphone can harm the environment (phys.org)
Top ten reasons to stop the waste and to recycle textiles | Humana Nova
What a Waste (worldbank.org)
Where Do 50 Million Tonnes a Year of Toxic E-Waste Go? — Global Issues
Worldwide food waste | ThinkEatSave (unep.org)