Recycling is one of those practices that we think of when considering sustainable living. Many of us have growing concerns about climate change due to greenhouse gas emissions and the impact of our waste on the environment. Recycling has become a part of many people’s everyday lives to do our bit, especially with almost ubiquitous access to recycling bins in various areas. So how does recycling help climate change?
Although it’s not the holy grail of sustainable change, recycling helps to reduce carbon emissions. Although you may be familiar with the recycling system, this article examines how exactly it helps the climate crisis.
There are various views on how far recycling can take us. However, there’s no denying that it plays a key part in contributing to a circular economy.
A study by Project Drawdown estimates that between 2020 and 2050, recycling can reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 5.5 - 6.02 gigatons5. Since recycling converts waste into new products, there’s a key connection between recycling and waste. This connection helps to support the world’s sustainability endeavors as we embrace recycled materials.
By choosing recycled items and supporting recycling, we can reduce energy consumption, direct emissions, and waste. Recycling reduces the collective need for virgin materials, which in turn translates to less use of fossil fuels for converting raw materials.
When examining recycling and waste, there are also clear climate benefits. Instead of trashing our recyclable products, we can send them to recycling companies to reduce the trash in landfills.
Due to the anaerobic decomposition in landfills, methane gas becomes released into the environment. Methane accounts for 25% of greenhouse gases worldwide. It is over 25 times more potent at trapping heat in the atmosphere compared with the carbon dioxide equivalent. Reducing waste and enhancing recycling programs can help mitigate the damaging effects of greenhouse gases and the climate crisis.
The effects of reducing energy use and minimizing resource usage help sustainable endeavors. For example, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), composting, recycling, and reducing municipal solid waste in 2018 led to saving over 193 million metric tons of CO24. The organization compared this with the emissions we would curb by removing about 42 million vehicles from the roads.
We can also understand the usefulness of recycling in specific instances. Recycled aluminum cans use 95% less energy when we compare them to the energy manufacturers need to transform bauxite ore. When manufacturers create recycled paper products from 60% and 100% recycled fiber3, this can save 20% and 80% energy, respectively.
Further reading: For more facts, check out our posts on recycling facts and climate change facts.
We can further break down the usefulness of recycling. There are two main ways this procedure helps mitigate the effects of climate change. Recycling:
Dependence on raw materials leads to the extraction of resources and large energy consumption. For instance, we derive plastics from petrochemicals. This leads to manufacturers depending on fossil fuels for production.
Each time manufacturers convert virgin materials to new items; the procedure requires a ton of energy. This goes into extracting and processing on the producer’s end. Apart from extractions and conversion, the transportation of these new materials also requires fossil fuels. These fuels further add to the amount of toxic gases in the atmosphere.
When people demand recycled products and companies comply with this, it ensures a collective effort for change. Going for recycled items means less energy and less toxicity.
Apart from plastic, recycling plays a vital role in the paper industry. Paper forms a crucial part of our everyday lives. We use it at home, in the office, in schools, in banks, and many other places. Paper comes from trees, so relying on virgin paper relies heavily on trees. Globally, this causes deforestation, one of the world’s significant environmental challenges.
If we lose our forests, it affects the atmosphere and quality of air. This is because forests absorb carbon emissions. They are important in helping us tackle climate change. Studies show that forests absorb 2.6 billion tonnes of CO2 yearly.
The more we depend on these resources to make new goods, the more it strains the ecosystem and contributes to the climate crisis. Managing sustainable forest helps, but recycling also reduces the overreliance on trees.
Related: Eco Friendly Paper - All you need to know
Many challenges come with waste management systems. Most significantly, the dumping of food waste and other waste in landfills contributes to methane emissions. This gas is highly potent and affects the world’s climate. When items compile in landfills, an anaerobic decomposition process takes place. This breakdown contributes to the emission of this toxic gas. By embracing composting and recycling, we can better mitigate these effects in landfills.
Governments and businesses are significant drivers of better systems. These people play crucial roles in shaping systems for sustainable development. However, sustainable change also requires individual efforts.
When people demand more sustainably made goods, it pushes businesses and governments to make changes. When we consume fewer new products and reuse what we own, we send a message to businesses. Also, as we shift towards buying high-quality recycled items, we reduce the trash we send to bins and landfills.
Trash incineration is another major contributor to climate change. It releases millions of tons of greenhouses into the atmosphere. Naturally, this affects the climate and air quality. Not only do these gases harm the planet’s health, but they also affect human and animal life.
With the abundance of trash in landfills, many world systems settle to burn them in combustion chambers. This burning procedure requires high-temperature levels to break down the solid items. Afterward, solid trash becomes nothing but gas and ashes. As these substances make their way into the atmosphere, they contaminate the air.
There are some arguments in favor of incineration as a waste management technique. Although many places use it as a way to convert trash to energy and reduce the quantity of trash, the procedure emits CO2.
A report by Zero Waste Europe revealed that incinerators in Europe released about 96 million tons of carbon dioxide in 20181. As incinerators release smoke, this smoke contains other harmful substances like heavy metals, acid gases, and nitrogen oxide. On the health side, people who live near these incinerators or plants are at risk of developing illnesses.
Related: What Happens to Our Plastic Waste?
Although the environmental benefits of recycling are clear, it still poses some challenges. For recycling to play its best role in society, the recycling system needs to work efficiently. Converting waste into new materials can be complicated. Without thorough examination, we, as a society, may be contributing more to the climate crisis.
One of the major challenges in the recycling procedure is single-stream recycling. This is a method whereby all recyclables are placed in a single bin. Afterward, the people behind the recycling programs collect and sort the materials in the recovery facility. Although this seems like an efficient and easy method for consumers, it poses its challenges.
One of the many problems with this method is that it tends to reduce the quality of recycled materials. When people throw all recyclables such as aluminum, glass, plastic, and cardboard in one bin, it leaves room for contamination.
There may be dirty items and other products that we shouldn’t mix. When the good material becomes contaminated, it affects the entire process and leads to materials ending up in landfills. This is because the companies find no use for the contaminated items. As a result, this act further contributes to landfill piles and toxic gas emissions.
This single-stream practice contributed to a major downturn in the recycling market in 2017. One of the world’s leading importers of recyclables2, China, announced a ban on some recyclables. The country’s government noticed that a significant portion of the products was either low quality or tainted with toxic substances. This policy affected many countries as China is a major importer of products like used plastics.
Below are some ways to contribute to a more efficient system that tackles the climate issue.
Although recycling plays a key part in energy efficiency, it’s not necessarily the first step in sustainability. One of the greatest shifts in your lifestyle to a more sustainable one is by reusing the items you own. This reduces your waste and reduces dependence on resources on a collective scale. Furthermore, it limits the need to recycle constantly. It also allows you to discover new uses for old items.
Related: Importance of 4Rs - Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
When more people choose products made from recycled materials, it reduces the dependence on extracting raw materials. This system leads to better use of resources on our planet. Since virgin production largely requires more energy than recycling, recycling can reduce fossil fuel usage. Consequently, this translates to fewer toxic gases in the air. It also reduces the amount of waste we send to landfills.
Related: 10 Clothing Brands Upcycling or Using Recycled Materials
Sorting recyclables is crucial to ensuring we have an efficient system. As earlier examined, contamination reduces the quality of items in the recycle bins. In many cases, people throw several items into the same bin believing that recovery facilities will sort them. Although these facilities are well-equipped, mixing various materials may not be the best method.
In another instance, people may throw non-recyclables in the recycle bin. In other cases, they may include dirty items in the bins. Once a pile becomes contaminated, it becomes difficult to convert the waste into quality and useful products. The result is the facility tossing the items back into the landfills.
Recycling is an intricate process that requires careful attention to detail. As a consumer, one of the most important things you can do is to educate yourself on the procedures. This assures you that you’re taking the proper steps to support a better system.
Related: 20 Recycling Tips for Effective Recycling at Home
Although companies are responsible for production, you can also call companies out as a consumer. This entails asking questions about their processes - right from extracting down to distributing. If you’re unsure of a business’ processes, you can also reach out to them to ask questions. By demanding sustainably made products from recycled goods, you’re playing a role in positive change.
Recycling plays a useful role in our society. As we become more aware of the impact of human activities on the planet, we can shift to better choices. When we recycle, we reduce the dependence on virgin materials and support waste management practices. These efforts result in emissions reductions and, along with other sustainable efforts, a greener planet. We must prioritize maximizing energy efficiency by cutting down on intense energy use.
Zero Waste Europe. (2020 November). Landfill emission reductions only tell half the story as GHG emissions from waste-to-energy incineration double
Yoshida, A. (2021). China’s ban of imported recyclable waste and its impact on the waste plastic recycling industry in China and Taiwan. Journal of Material Cycles and Waste Management, 1-10. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10163-021-01297-2
Ezeudu, O. B., Agunwamba, J. C., Ezeasor, I. C., & Madu, C. N. (2019). Sustainable production and consumption of paper and paper products in Nigeria: A review. Resources, 8(1), 53. http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/resources8010053
EPA. National overview: Facts and figures on materials, wastes and recycling
Project Drawdown. (n.d.). Recycling
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.