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The Problem with Recycling – It’s Ineffective to Fight Climate Change

The Problem with Recycling, as presently practised throughout the EU, is it's ineffective to fight climate change.

Image explains the problem with recycling: re-use like this is nothing but cranky!
Recycling your wellies, and your watering can, like this might be satisfying (if not slightly nonsensical) BUT, don't pretend it will effectively help the environment.

It's not just the WastersBlog saying this. The UK Environment Agency has been saying it! Nothing has changed since we first posted the following article on this subject back in 2007, except that the problems are now more acute!

What recycling is really worth doing to achieve is to reduce the need for new mined and grown materials. Every ton of recycled material which is used instead of being discarded in a landfill is a ton less which needs to be dug out of the ground or grown.

By recycling, you are doing something worthwhile to preserve the environment by reducing quarrying for raw materials. Along the way some fossil fuel energy will most likely also be saved, reducing its use. The less fossil fuel that is used (combusted or burnt) the less carbon dioxide will be emitted. That's really worthwhile to help prevent our planet from overheating.

Article first published 22 May 2007:

UK Environment Agency Dismisses Recycling Efforts to Fight Climate Change – Problem with Recycling

Just days before the release of a new English waste strategy, the Environment Agency has issued a statement that “recycling does not really contribute much to tackling climate change”.

The statement came from its chief executive, Barbara Young, who also challenged people who say that recycling is their main contribution to tackling climate change to “further raise the stakes”.

“People want to care for the planet, but recycling does not really contribute much to tackling climate change. “
– Barbara Young, Environment Agency

It appeared to contradict research from WRAP that suggests UK recycling has a similar impact in fighting climate change to taking 3.5 million cars off the road.

Baroness Young was commenting on the results of an Agency/MORI poll said to be the nation's biggest survey on climate change. It found that 41% of people have altered their behaviour to reduce their carbon footprint, while 23% of these said recycling was their primary means of doing so.

Baroness Young said:

“That's a signal that people want to care for the planet, but recycling does not really contribute much to tackling climate change.”

She suggested householders adopt a range of “equally simple measures” including drying your washing outdoors and making sure appliances are not left on stand-by. The chief executive added:

“Many people might already be taking these actions alongside recycling, but if you're not, now is the time to start.”

Baroness Young voiced her opinion [regarding the problem with recycling] ahead of the revised England Waste Strategy now expected to be published next week, which has been delayed by six months to fit in with the government's climate change policies.

More Problems with Recycling:

Recycling is in trouble and you may be part of the problem

[First published January 2018.]

If you are recycling at home, you are probably doing it wrong. Read about this problem with recycling:

That is why a worker lunged to grab a garden hose off the conveyor belt at a Waste Management recycling facility here Wednesday before it got caught in a giant sorting machine. Such tangles frequently require the plant to stop the waste processing line and clean out the jaws by hand.

“Our contamination changes by the season,”

said Mike Taylor, the company's director of recycling operations here. Since it's spring, the facility is getting a lot of garden hoses. Around the holidays, they get broken strands of Christmas lights, another choking hazard for the sorting line.

And all day every day there are plastic shopping bags (recyclable at a grocery store but not from a household), chunks of styrofoam, diapers, syringes, food-contaminated containers … a nearly endless litany of things that residents throw into their kerbside recycling carts figuring they are or ought to be recyclable.

One worker grabs the remnants of a screen door off the sorting line while another snags a wire rack from a DIY shelving unit. via Recyclingtrouble

China has stopped accepting recycling from other nations – and that's a problem for recycling globally

Beginning Jan. 1, 2018, China stopped allowing the import of recyclable goods from many countries including the United States. Now, these nations are struggling with excess amounts of recyclables with nowhere to send it. It's a big problem with recycling at this time.

Steve Frank of Pioneer Recycling in Oregon told The New York Times his inventory is out of control and that China's ban is “a major upset of the flow of global recyclables.”

He's now having to look at other countries like Indonesia that may accept recyclable items.

To help stymie the excess amounts of this problem with recycling, with recyclable goods piling up, the European Union plans on proposing a tax on plastic bags and packaging as a result of China's ban reports Bloomberg.

It’s no secret that China, the top global importer of numerous recyclable materials, has accepted everyone else’s garbage with open arms for decades. The United States — along with a slew of other developed nations — sends China our recyclable trash and, in turn, China transforms foreign garbage into consumer products and packaging and sends it back our way.

Plastic waste is particularly lucrative. In 2016 alone, Chinese manufacturers imported 7.3 million metric tons of recovered plastic from the U.S. — waste is the sixth-largest U.S. export to China — and other countries. Once in China, bales of plastic waste are trucked off to reprocessing facilities and turned into pellets for manufacturing.

Just think: All that plastic food packaging tossed into the recycling bin could make its way back to you in the form of a shiny new smartphone. As Bloomberg aptly puts it, “foreign garbage is really just China’s recycling coming home.”

In July 2017, China's Ministry of Environmental Protection told the World Trade Organization that it would no longer accept imports of 24 common types of once-permitted solid waste due to contamination concerns. The ban is a big problem with recycling for many nations and extends to various recyclables including several plastics such as PET and PVC, certain textiles and mixed waste paper. Easier-to-recycle metals are not included in the new restrictions.

Chinese officials believe that the waste it's receiving from the U.S. and elsewhere is simply not clean enough; harmful contaminants are mixing in with recyclable materials and polluting the land and water. “To protect China's environmental interests and people's health, we urgently need to adjust the imported solid wastes list and forbid the import of solid wastes that are highly polluting,” reads the country's WTO filing. … via Chinastoppedacceptingrecyclingproblem

Market for Cullet Declining

Glass continues to be the unloved member of the recycling family.

Unlike plastic, glass is non-toxic and can be recycled again and again. But plastic is cheap to make, ship and store, prompting beverage and food makers to turn to plastic as a way to boost profits. In January, Snapple became the latest drink maker to switch its bottles from glass to plastic.

Slumping demand for glass prompted a bottle-maker in Milford, Mass., to shut down last month. The unexpected closure terminated 250 jobs at a company that had been making mostly beer bottles since 1973. Much of the crushed glass, or cullet, for those bottles came from Rhode Island and recycling centres across New England via Strategic Materials Inc., a recycled-glass processor and distributor in Franklin, Mass.

“Regional demand for recycled glass has collapsed over the last several months,” Joseph Reposa, executive director at the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation (RIRRC), said during an April 4 Senate hearing.

Many of New England’s glass-recycling programs are paralysed. The town of Hookset, N.H., recently told residents to start throwing their glass in the trash. In Rhode Island, glass is stockpiling at RIRRC's Johnston facility, but the state’s primary recycling centre wants consumers and businesses to continue putting glass bottles and jars in their recycling bins. … via Glass Market for Cullet Declining

[Article first published 22 May 2007. Last updated September 2021.]

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