Monday, 12 November 2012

To Recycle or Not To Recycle, That is The Question.

November 11th was the National Recycling day in Malaysia, a country which for the last 30 years has had one of the fast economic growing rates in south East Asia. However, according to the authorities, recycling in Malaysia is one of the lowest ones in the region by less than 10%. In this post, I would like to argue about the practice of recycling before finding out the reasons of low recycling rate and how to encourage people to start practicing it. We need to understand the advantages and disadvantages of recycling first and then decide if this practice is worth doing it or not.

It always happens to me when you talk about being green, sustainable life style, waste management and environment, the first reaction and focus of people is on recycling. Recycling without any doubt is our first action to do “something good for the Mother Nature”. It has always given us a great feeling. I still feel good and proud every time that I separate my wastes and dispose them into the specific waste bins. We all justify ourselves that because we do not litter and we do recycle, we have already paid our debt to the nature. I don’t want to talk about people’s mentality towards their wastes and how they deal with it but I would like to raise this question that “is recycling an environmental friendly practice?” Or when we proudly say that we purchase stuff that came from recycled materials, does that really make us someone who cares about the environment?

Let’s see what recycling can give us. The first benefit of recycling is conservation of material and energy. When we throw a plastic bottle, aluminium can, glass and so many other things, not only we are throwing those materials but also the energy that was used to produce those products. Therefore by recycling, we do not need to use virgin material to produce the same product (or use of less virgin materials). Studies have shown that by recycling one tonne of paper, we can save 17 trees; recycling one glass bottle would save energy to keep on a light bulb for four hours and recycled aluminium uses only 5% of the energy that it takes to create a new aluminium can.

When it comes to waste management, landfilling is the last option of waste management and another benefit of recycling is that it avoids sending the materials to the landfills. By doing that, we can increase the landfill lifespan (we can use the landfill for longer time). Recyclables like glass, plastics and aluminium take a long time to be naturally degraded as it takes 1 million years for glass and 100 years for aluminium to degrade naturally. Therefore, these items are better to be recycled than simply sent to landfills.

Due to lots of energy saving (by recycling instead of extract virgin materials), recycling reduces millions of tonnes of greenhouse gasses every year and as a result, it would mitigate the global warming impact. In addition to that, recycling makes it easier for those who are responsible for the waste disposal as they will have to deal with less amount of waste. It also causes less pollution. And the last and of course not least, recycling creates many jobs in much better environment than other options in waste management.

So recycling has pretty good environmental, economic and social benefits. But of course it doesn’t come without its dark side. Now it is good to know more about negative parts of recycling. First thing is the transportation. Anything we throw into the recycling bins needs to be transferred into the recycling facilities. The transportation itself consumes fuel which contributes to air pollution and global warming.

Recycling process consumes lots energy and resources too. When the recyclables reach to the facilities, depends on the process, it consumes water, chemicals, energy and generates greenhouse gases as well as wastewater and wastes. To have better picture we can take a quick look at a paper recycling facility. First cardboards and papers all will get mixed with water and different types of chemicals. As paper and cardboards got lots of inks, these chemicals would help to remove them and also turn them to a brighter colour. Next processes include removing the impurities and plating the paper pulp on a role and then drying. All these processes are very energy consuming and lots of water is also needed. Apart from the energy part, the wastewater from the processes contains lots of toxic and chemicals. Wastewater needs to be treated and the sludge (the leftover of the wastewater treatment) needs to be sent to special landfills (due to the existence of toxic material). It is eminent that many of these toxic and chemicals would also leak through the recycled papers; therefore the consumers will have to be careful for what purpose they should use the recycled papers. Unfortunately, I have seen that some of these papers are used to wrap food which can really threat the health of citizens. It is the same with other recyclables as well. For example, aluminium can recycling facilities consumes lots of energy to melt the used cans and turn them to aluminium bars. This type of recycling is also called up-cycling which is basically turns the recyclables back to its virgin material instead of the product itself.

So by knowing the fact that how recycling process is done, we can say that recycling is not a clean job especially when you’re dealing with toxic and chemical materials. Even though usually recycling facilities are cleaner environment in comparison with landfills (depend on the country of course) but workers are still exposed to toxics and it could seriously affect their health.

Another negative point of recycling is increasing of toxic concentration in recycled items. Unlike aluminium cans, plastic bottles for instance cannot be recycled forever as every time they are recycled, the concentration of toxic and heavy metals would increase in the new product. Therefore, it happens a lot that these items would be down-cycled which means instead of turning them to new plastic bottles they would make something with less value with lower quality. This action itself is against the spirit of recycling as it should be back into the cycle of the same product.

Now we already know some of the advantages and disadvantages of recycling. We know that recycling can save energy and material and create jobs and we are also aware that recycling also consumes energy and leaves pollution and waste behind. However, its advantages are far better than disadvantages. Recycling is in the waste management hierarchy, is though the 3rd favourable option after “reduce” which comes first and then “reuse”. Therefore, the main focus needs to be on the first two and if there is nothing we can do to reduce or reuse then recycling should be in place. As Annie Leonard the author of “The Story of Stuff” mentioned, by putting our main focus on recycling we are not changing anything as our main goal has to be on generating less waste, purchasing products that we know are environmental friendly and of course force the manufacturers to take responsibility to design products which can last much longer, be repaired easily and at the time of its disposal, gets recycled.

So always remember, we all have responsibility toward the environment we are living in. Everything we have comes from the nature and therefore, we need to be respectful to it. So first reduce, then reuse and at the end ALWAYS RECYCLE. 


  1. I would add a bit - recycling is a very good option, though it needs appropriate infrastructure. I am not aware of Malaysian WM system, but can say from Latvian - first you have to deal with illegal dumping and recultivate the dumpsites, then construct landfills (wise option would be without taking loans for them) as that has direct impact on incoming waste amount, as the landfills would be interested in receiving more waste in order to gain more $. Then infrastructure like sorting stations, separate waste collection bins and other has to be developed and most important (!) the channels where the sorted materials will be brought are to be established (within one country or in the neighbour - that one depends).
    But one important thing - WM hierarchy existing has stages and we can't just jump over some and go directly to reduce. As for that a lot of social, economic and environmental actions are to be taken. This is why it has steps, not options. Although, for last couple of years, I tend to see WM not as a hierarchy, but more as integrated resource management system (very nicely presented by McDougall (2001)). As we have to deal with and treat not waste - but resources! - By the way, this one works better also on inhabitants, as they will have to deal not with waste (which nobody likes), but with resources and when one hears "resources" - one hears some monetary sounds behind, which also could be an option in how to increase people Corporate Social Responsibility within country or even within family :)

    1. I believe that stories of WM could be different in different contexts; however, that would be great if such different stories can be shared. Once I told Amin about certain villages in deserts of Iran where there is no waste; People's life style is in a way that they consume less, while no waste remains because they reuse and reuse, and why it is so different since there are not enough resources over there! Anyway, thank you Amin, and thank you Natalia.