Does recycling really make a difference?

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What happens after you’ve divided all your waste products into different types? Where does it all end up and exactly what difference does it really make?

As recently as 1995 the UK was recycling just 7.5% of its household waste. That figure is now approaching 50%, and on course to hit that figure before for the EU set target of 2020. Perhaps most pertinently the following facts display how far we’ve come as a nation with regards to recycling.

The UK now –

  • Recycles more waste than is sent to landfill
  • Produces on average 88kg less waste per individual than 5 years ago
  • Has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 70% compared to 1990

As you might expect, much is reported on the environmental impacts of recycling and rightly so but impact has also been felt commercially and in employment. A complete industry has grown up from recycling, providing jobs and healthy profits for business owners. Consider this –  a tonne of old plastic bottles can be sold on the recycling market for between £300 and £400, a tonne of paper is worth £100 and aluminium cans fetch up to £800 a tonne. Food can be turned into biogas (a renewable energy resource); more pure gold can be extracted from a tonne of electrical waste than from a tonne of unprocessed gold ore; and whatever remains can be burnt cleanly to power turbines and generate electricity. The earning potential is abundantly clear.

Out of around 23 different types of household waste not all is recyclable as yet. This is due either to financial reasons where the process is still being developed and is costly or where the practicalities of recycling the item outweigh the end benefits. The main types of waste currently concentrated on are polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, which is used in soft drinks and water bottles, and high-density polyethylene, or HDPE, which is more rigid and used for making milk bottles, bottle tops and the trays in food packaging.

It’s impossible to underestimate the importance of recycling both for current and future generations and the strides made in recent years have been of seismic proportions. But there is still much work to be done. Opportunities for recycling need to be made as easy as possible for consumers to ensure that it continues to grow and become almost second nature. It is also true that although approaching 50% of household waste is now recycled, around 70% of that is then sent to China. Whilst European law prevents the export of waste that does not extend to materials exported for recycling. If we can’t make use of all the materials we already recycle, what will we do with more of it? As other countries look to develop their own systems and processes, the opportunities for export will diminish. The answer lies possibly in identifying more uses for recycled matter and all buying into the plan.

Looking to the future there is much more still to be achieved. Machines and processes are being developed to deal with the matter that cannot currently be recycled and education needs to continue to ensure that the recyclable material that gets missed ends up within the system. Consumers need better and more regular communication on what can be recycled and the benefits of doing so. The better we become at effectively splitting out recyclables and re-using more items within the home, the better prepared we will be when other economies catch up with the strides we’ve already made.