Author: Divya Kasarabada
Among the R’s, recycling is understood to be a last resort. Narratives today strive to push consumers to firstly reduce and then reuse. In the past years, we have also questioned whether recycling truly helps the environment.
We have been worried that by focusing on recycling we are forgetting the original problem on our planet – the existence of plastic. While recycling does not fix the climate crisis it does help to solve the problem of wasteful consumption of humanity. According to the Inventory of Average Greenhouse Gas Emissions for Denmark, Norway and Sweden, here are the differences in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from primary production vs. production from recycling:
Material New Production GHGs Recycling Production GHGs Difference
* Unit used in kg CO2-equivalent/kg material.
Recycling the materials that exist currently in our economy will help us save energy compared to when we extract virgin materials. The table above shows the differences in greenhouse gas emissions from primary production vs production from recycling. Pushing for this new type of production will help us protect our existing and vulnerable ecosystems and preserve them.
When I think of recycling, I tend to think of my responsibility as a consumer and what I can do to help this process. I do this with the hope that my recycling habits work. Most of us have even optimistically put non-recyclable objects into the recycling bins in hope that we are trying to save the environment (I am guilty of wishful recycling too). But this goes without saying, our recycling knowledge is limited. I was not as lucky as kids today who get to learn about waste management from a young age. In fact, I may have caused more damage than any good with my previous recycling habits. Unfortunately, hope and optimism will not sort materials and take them to the right place, they will still end up in the landfill eventually. After realizing this was hard, I took it upon myself to learn more about some dos and donts when it comes to waste management.
If you have also been a practitioner of wishful recycling, I have made a quick guide on the most common recycling mistakes. The world of waste management can be a huge one to grasp and change at a flick of a switch. But I think the biggest changes can come from small steps.
Here are three of my small steps, I guarantee you each of them is easy to implement and keep in mind:
1. Clean recyclables are more valuable than dirty ones
It will not hurt anybody if a glass jar or a metal is not cleaned when sent out for recycling. These two materials are subjected to high temperatures and melted, therefore burning off any chemicals or unwanted substances. Cleaning your products before you discard them can be important if it comes to food leftovers or chemicals to prevent any contamination. For example, greasy pizza boxes and takeout containers, are considered non-recyclable. However, cutting out the greasy part (which can go into the compost bin) can make the pizza box recyclable. Plastic is also one to try to clean as much as possible as it is shredded in recycling.
A reasonable ground rule to establish would be to clean as much as you can before you discard!
2. There is more than meets the eye!
It is easy to forget products are heterogeneous. And while the size of the materials makes a difference, it is important to examine something before discarded. For example, takeaway coffee cups are non-recyclable. We tend to think paper cups are recyclable however, they are plastic lined and have a lid made of a different material. Usually, the cup and lid are not separated when discarded and contain coffee, therefore this is the most common example of an unrecyclable object.
How about getting a reusable takeaway coffee mug?
Another example is sticky tape on cardboard. Sticky tape is made of polypropylene, a type of plastic and therefore non-recyclable. It might be a good idea to try to get as much sticky tape off cardboards before discarding them to avoid leading them to the landfill.
How about some eco-friendly tapes? Perhaps tape made from bamboo or hemp?
Did you know that cleaning clothes and wet wipes are also non-recyclable? Wet wipes especially can feel like a type of paper. A good tip I learned to check if something is plastic is to try and tear it.
A good alternative is getting compostable clothes or plastic-free cleaning cloths.
3. Tech and context matters
While there are certain steps we can take as consumers, there is a lot to be done from the organization's side and also from recycling facilities. With the rise of bioplastics in the market, there is still a gap to be met. Bioplastics are made from plants and look just like plastic. In theory, they are recyclable but when mixed with regular plastic, how do you tell them apart?
Unfortunately, most recycling facilities today are not equipped to tell these two materials apart due to not having the technology to do so. Recyclable is not the same as actually being able to be recycled. Lots of materials in our world today are in theory recyclable and may even be recycled in different cities. It could sometimes mean that those materials are not recycled in the city we live in. This might mean that as consumers we might need to take an additional step to send respective materials to the right facility.
Therefore technology and the context we live in also come into play when changing our recycling habits. What does your municipality do differently? Is your school talking about waste management? These are important questions to ask.
While there are some steps we can take as consumers, we still need to call action to the economy and the way we design products, choose materials and their end of life. When both of us taking the necessary steps we can hope to achieve change on a bigger scale.
On this note, I hope these small steps were helpful on your waste management journey!
Divya is an independent sustainability writer platformed by ReGeneration 2030. If you want to join our open platform and share your articles or creative texts with our community, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.