All human activities produce waste. This truth cannot be avoided. Whether the waste is from the food we eat, the products we buy, or the cars we drive, waste occurs. It’s unavoidable.
The question, therefore, is not whether we will have waste, but what to do with it.
This question is especially important in an era of climate change, environmental damage, and scarcity. By both reducing waste and recycling products which otherwise might become waste, we can lessen the effects of greenhouse gases, keep the environment less dangerous, and increase the availability of resources.
Many products can be recycled, from the familiar cans and bottles to things like used shipping containers.
The atmosphere receives a significant portion of the waste from human activity. The bulk of this waste comes in the form of the greenhouse gases (GHG) carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane. The emissions may also contain other harmful compounds, including sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxide.
Most of these emissions can be reduced but not directly recycled at a commercial level currently. Since the emissions are produced in part by converting raw materials into products for human use, recycling the products inevitably will reduce the emissions.
The production of electricity and heat produced roughly 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2010. Most of these emissions came from the burning of oil, coal, and natural gas. Industry produced an additional 21% of the GHG emissions, and agriculture or other land use added a net 19.2%. Recycling products made for human use in the latter two categories will reduce the burden they place on the atmosphere, as we’ll discuss below.
RECYCLING CARBON DIOXIDE
Carbon dioxide is recycled naturally by photosynthesis in plants, which uses CO2 to produce strong plants and oxygen—which we can breathe. Plant-life on the planet, however, can’t handle the CO2 burden of human industrial activity.
Several methods to extract CO2 from industrial activity or the atmosphere are underway. While none are yet commercially viable, they are demonstrating signs of success in CO2 recycling. One method under research at the University of Toronto would convert CO2 to carbon monoxide (CO). The latter could then be used to produce other fuels, including methanol, diesel, and ethanol.
The promise of these technologies is not the elimination of the GHG. Recycling CO2, however, would reduce the carbon footprint of industries, and thus help alleviate climate change stemming from air pollution.
RECYCLING OTHER PRODUCTS WHICH PRODUCE GREENHOUSE GASES
The key to controlling the amount of GHG emitted by human activity is recycling the products which are made. Using the waste produced by human consumption as a raw material—recycling—reduces GHG emissions, and thus keeps the air cleaner.
Recycling paper, for example, has significant benefits. The Environmental Protection Agency indicates that each ton of recycled paper would save enough energy to power a typical American home for half a year. Recycling paper also saves trees, which allows greater carbon sequestration by natural processes. When paper decays in landfills, it produces methane, which traps more heat than CO2. Using recycled paper uses significantly less energy than making it “from scratch.”
Recycling plastic bottles—one way of getting fresh water around the world, especially in areas with poor water supplies—can reduce the CO2 and other GHG emissions between 30 and 70%.
Steel is a major component of industrial products, and the steel industry had a recycling rate of 88% in 2012. Steel, unlike other materials, does not degrade when recycled. Steel is relatively easy to extract from the solid waste stream using magnets. Recycling steel produces significantly less GHG and other waste.
In the United States, if each person recycled one aluminum can, almost 300 million new cans could be made, reducing GHG emissions by an amount equal to that produced by almost 7,000 cars in a year. Recycling aluminum uses around 5% of the energy needed to make new aluminum.
Developing nations can participate in recycling efforts and not sacrifice economic development. In many developing countries, recycling already takes place informally, with many people, especially urban poor, digging through the solid waste stream to find plastic bottles, cans, and other recyclables.
The key to recycling is to create economic value to the waste. For example, banana bunches are grown inside plastic bags—the bags provide protection from insects and agricultural equipment. Before a market for these bags was created, they were simply tossed away. By creating a recycling plant which paid for the waste bags, the growers have an incentive to preserve them.
Waste plastic is also a commodity in several nations. The Plastic Bank, working in conjunction with Social Plastic, allows people in developing nations to trade in waste plastic for needed commodities, including shoes and clothing. Also, in Peru, the installation of 3D printing facilities will allow the production of other components, usable in local businesses.
Plastic recycling supported by the Plastic Bank will reduce emissions into the air. Much of the plastic waste around the world, including that in Peru, would otherwise end up in the oceans. Plastic is long-lasting. It moves readily from where it entered the oceans and can cause harm to ocean animals, plants, and humans.
Most human debris in the ocean is plastic. Much of the plastic has broken down into microscopic pieces called “micro-plastic.” Microplastics can be eaten by marine wildlife. Once ingested, the microplastics can cause intestinal blockage and altered oxygen levels, and transmit concentrated harmful chemicals absorbed by the plastic. Larger pieces of plastic can entangle the animals and lead to injury or death. The microplastics can get into the human food chain, also.
Pollution by recyclable plastics is one of the dangers present when people don’t recycle. Other pollutants can be reduced when recycling becomes a regular part of the human economy. Toxic waste from industry, for example, is discharged into rivers and directly into the oceans. If more of the industry’s products are recycled, then less harm is done to the waters.
Recycling also presents a significant economic opportunity for people and countries. Plastic pollution causes significant losses in fisheries, tourism, and health care. It’s estimated that five Southeast Asian nations suffer a loss of $375 per ton of waste, much of which gets into the oceans and ecosystems. In some nations, gathering used bottles can generate a day’s income for the bottle-picker.
The crucial step in decreasing the waste stream flowing into the oceans is the creation of infrastructure. The waste needs to be collected and aggregated—only high volume produces the strongest economic benefits. The economic value of plastic bottles, for example, rises from a money-losing situation when bottles are part of a mixed waste stream, to $350-$600 per metric ton when bottles are separated and aggregated.
Clearing plastics—and other recyclable waste—out of the oceans will also benefit the land, because of the effort taken to aggregate and recycle. Recycling other materials will produce other reductions to land pollution.
Land pollution is caused by a variety of human activities. Extraction of raw materials is a messy business and produces significant waste products. The use of petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides in agriculture leads potentially to run-off problems as well as damage to the land. Landfills containing unrecycled material can lead to land pollution. Construction and industrialization produce waste which can harm the land. Most of these harmful substances can be mitigated or eliminated by recycling.
Steel is a readily recyclable product. One metric ton of recycled steel saves over a metric ton of steel, as well as provides significant savings in coal and limestone. It produces only 3% of the mining waste compared to virgin steel. It takes 74% less energy.
Aluminum is the most abundant metal available on Earth and is easily and affordably recyclable. The savings from recycling aluminum are high. One metric ton of recycled aluminum saves 8 tons of bauxite and the energy equivalent of 40 barrels of oil. The aluminum can is readily recyclable. Cans can be recycled back to the shelves in around 60 days, and over 63% of cans around the world are recycled.
Recycling other metals, such as copper, zinc, tin, and lead, produces similar savings of energy and extraction waste. Precious metals can be recycled from many high-tech products. Apple recycled over a ton of gold from discarded iPhones—worth $40 million—in 2015.
DAMAGE FROM MINING
Mining causes severe damage to the land. Mining not only damages the immediate location of the mine, but mine waste can get into the water supply and damage land downstream.
Open pits and rock disposal areas are the most visible signs of mine damage. While many of the facilities, including offices and mills, are recycled when mines close, the open pits and waste rock disposal areas are unaesthetic reminders of that mining. Erosion of the waste rock can cause metals to get into the water, which drains from the area. Some of the waste rock may produce acids which can harm groundwater and stream habitats.
Many mining operations use impoundment basins and ponds to hold the waste. Mining uses a variety of chemicals to process their ores, and those chemicals are present in the waste. If the dam creating the impoundment pond bursts, as two did in Brazil in 2015, the waters downstream can become polluted by those chemicals.
AGRICULTURE AND RECYCLING
Agriculture can use a significant amount of plastic, much of which can be difficult to recycle. Much of this plastic is used in one season. Historically, much of the agricultural plastic has been burned, harming both the land and air. Agricultural plastic is difficult to dispose of because of its high-volume, low-weight nature.
New York State, through the Cornell Cooperative Extension program, has led agricultural recycling efforts. Working with farmers, the program has used mobile plastics balers to recycle bale wrap and other products. While the recycling efforts have yet to become sustainable, these efforts are paving the way to a cleaner environment.
Composting of manure and other organic matter provides benefits on both large and small scales. Use of compost reduces the need for petroleum-based fertilizers and can increase crop yields. Significant use of compost can build up soil and reduce water use.
Over-use of fertilizer can cause considerable damage to the environment. Fertilizer is high in phosphorus. Rainwater carries that phosphorus with it as it enters the streams and rivers. Once in the surface water, the phosphorus contributes to the growth of algal blooms, which can produce dangerous toxins. One such algal bloom shut down Toledo’s water system in 2014. Increasing the use of compost as well as decreasing the use of fertilizer will lessen the risk of blooms.
JOBS AND RESOURCES
Recycling can be the next big growth area worldwide. Recycling can become a potent source of raw materials, especially for developing economies. It can also be a significant source of new jobs and wealth.
The key to this growth is adopting a “circular economy” model. The circular economy avoids many of the harms produced by the linear model of “take, make, and dispose”—this model produces the waste products which have harmed the environment. While resource extraction would continue in a circular economy, the emphasis on recycling and renewable resources would significantly lessen the need for major extraction.
Recycling is a major job creator at all steps in the process. People are needed to collect, sort, and process the recyclables. Once the recyclables are ready for use, manufacturing and sales jobs also can be created. In the U.S., recycling employed 1.25 million people, while solid waste management employed 0.25 million. The recycling of 10,000 tons of solid waste creates up to 36 jobs while disposing of that amount as solid waste creates only six jobs.
Recycling is an opportunity for developing nations. As of 2012, 59% of waste was not collected, let alone recycled. Organic waste in these nations is around 64% of solid waste. This resource could be recycled and composted. It would be a much more affordable fertilizer than petroleum-based ones. In Telangana, India, an entrepreneurial firm has been able to convert enough municipal organic waste to supply 45% of the local farmers’ fertilizer needs.
Recycling takes many forms. Some products are recycled as they are made—they are, in effect, reused. Other products are processed into new raw materials.
Recycling takes effort and a change of attitude. When it is made relatively easy for the consumer, however, recycling rates rise. As humanity looks for ways both to combat the dangers of climate change and to provide for the seven billion people on the planet, recycling is a major component of both efforts.