Do we actually know that recycling is good for the environment?
Paper recycling, and recycling in general, is an important part of daily life in most countries around the world. Research shows each week 1% families and businesses are changing to sensible recycling habits. A further five per cent have access to local drop-off recycling centres.
At the last count, the average household was diverting a quarter of weekly garbage into recycling crates making that effort in the belief Recycling is good for the environment’ and will help shape a better Planet for future generations.
Government agencies and councils insist on waste minimisation, They have become a keen advocate of recycling in the context of economic and Environmental sustainability. After all is said and done, Governments are the people’s representatives, inside a decade we are finally listening to our scientists.
The Scientific Studies
People can be reassured that recycling is an appropriate environmental solution, thanks to two recently completed Australian scientific studies:
The first, Life Cycle Assessment for Paper and Packaging Waste Management In Victoria, is a Melbourne-based research project carried out by a group of universities to fully investigate the environmental benefit (and detriment) of recycling versus waste to landfill. This study was primarily sponsored by EcoRecycle Victoria.
The second is an Australia-wide study, commissioned by the National Packaging Covenant Council (NPCC), entitled Independent Assessment of Kerbside Recycling in Australia. The most comprehensive study of recycling undertaken in Australia, this report measures the financial, environmental and social impacts of recycling, translating the environmental impacts into dollars to compare costs and benefits.
Each of the above studies used the latest internationally respected methodological insights to analyse and compare the impacts of recycling to simply dumping waste into landfill.
Now we know that recycling is environmentally sound, just how is it?
Creating such great benefits?
CUTTING GREENHOUSE GASES
According to the LCA report, almost half of the greenhouse savings made by recyclers were found to be from avoiding the production of methane gas, this would have been generated at landfill as paper waste breaks down. (That figure even assumes that 55% of that methane would be captured for power generation).
The rest of the greenhouse savings were due to the avoidance of ‘virgin material production’. In other words, if a product was made from raw material rather than recycled material, more CO2 and other greenhouse gases would have been generated.
Most recycled products showed savings in embodied energy – that is, energy used in every part of the production of the product, from mining or harvesting of virgin (raw) materials, through to processing and disposal or recycling.
Embodied Energy Savings per kilogram in the production of recycled product as compared to an equivalent virgin product:
For recycled plastics (PET and HDPE) steel and (to a lesser extent) newsprint and paperboard, potential smog pollution from production of virgin materials and use of landfill is larger than from collection and recycling processes.
The savings in water use resulted from reduced water consumption when using recycled materials for production, compared to the amount of water used in production from virgin materials.
Let’s Explore Some Urban Myths
THE ‘ENERGY’ MYTH
“The amount of fuel wasted to power the trucks that pick up recycling crates undo any good recycling does. We’re just using up fuel and pumping more exhaust fumes into the atmosphere….”
FALSE: In the LCA report, all of the environmental savings found to be made by recycling were made taking into consideration ‘embodied energy’, which is energy consumed in every part of a product’s life cycle, including production and transportation.
In other words, the study’s results take into consideration any negative effect of truck fuel usage.
THE ‘LANDFILL CRISIS’ MYTH
FALSE: Recycling is about more than finding space in which to dump our unwanted materials! It is about saving natural resources, conserving energy, curbing the greenhouse effect, and reducing water usage. The LCA report finds that, compared to dumping in landfill, recycling makes significant environmental savings in all of these areas!
We also know that nobody wants a landfill ‘in his or her back yard’. This is just another reason why it makes sense to support recycling as a waste minimisation solution.
THE ‘RUBBISH IS BIODEGRADABLE’ MYTH
FALSE: Firstly, your waste bin isn’t full of ‘rubbish”, it’s full of valuable untapped resources. Secondly, not all rubbish degrades. Even with organic matter (such as paper), which is the most efficient of materials to degrade, there are arguments about the speed with which it actually breaks down. Modern landfills are designed specifically to prevent leaching of residues; unfortunately the same technology that stops leaching also blocks air and water from entering the landfill and thus the breakdown of materials is hindered.
When organic materials do break down at landfill they create CO2 and methane. It’s currently assumed that, on average, 55% of that gas is captured for power generation. Half of the remaining amount is lost to the atmosphere to become a potent greenhouse gas.
THE ‘RECYCLING ISN’T WORTH IT’ MYTH
FALSE: As the NPCC study shows, recycling has a net environmental benefit to the community. The report concludes that, taking into consideration the financial costs of recycling and the environmental ‘dollar’ costs, the overall national benefit is an estimated $266 million per year!
Keep on Recycling…and Reducing and Reusing!
The best way to preserve natural resources, reduce air pollution, save energy and cut greenhouse gasses is to avoid creating waste in the first place.
If we keep up the good work, future generations deserve a better deal.
Always remember: “Together we can make a difference”