In the guide below, we discuss whether recycling is good or bad specifically for the environment.
This guide compliments our more comprehensive guide on the pros and cons of recycling in general.
Summary – Is Recycling Good Or Bad For The Environment?
Is Recycling Good Or Bad?
Whether or not recycling is good or bad for the environment might depend on variables such as the type of waste being recycled, the type of recycling, and also what environmental indicator is being measured (e.g. pollution, emissions, resource use and so on).
In general, recycling might have some positive environmental effects, but also some negative environmental effects. Some of these effects can be managed, and some can’t.
We discuss these things further in the guide below.
Other Waste Management Options & Strategies To Consider
How Recycling Might Be Good For The Environment
– May reduce the environmental impact and resource use from sourcing and using new raw materials and virgin materials
Using 100% virgin materials requires extraction of resources, and refining and production processes
Recycling on the other hand recovers resources in the form of recycled material, and that recycling material can then be used in a number of ways
Recycled material doesn’t require mining and other extraction processes that might have a negative environmental impact (although, some virgin material may be used with recycled material in a recycling product)
There may also be energy and emission savings from recycling certain materials as opposed to making them from virgin materials
– Recycling waste prevents the potential environmental impact of sending that waste to landfill
Potential environmental issues caused by some landfills might include different forms of pollution and contamination from leachate passing the landfill soil liner, inadequate leachate management systems, and plastic and other waste leaking from landfill sites that aren’t properly secured.
Methane from decomposing organic waste is also a potential environmental issue in landfills, but most recycling does not involve organic waste. Composting may be a more environmentally friendly option for some forms of organic waste.
– Recycling waste prevents the potential environmental impact of sending that waste to incineration
Potential environmental issues caused by some incineration and waste to energy plants might include emissions of greenhouse gases, air pollutants and different toxins, as well as the by-product fly ash waste.
Examples Of The Potential Environmental Benefits Of Recycling Different Materials
Other information from other reports suggest metal recycling can reduce energy, carbon and water footprints compared to new metal production …
Turning recycled aluminum cans into new cans uses 95% less energy than making new ones
With efficient recycling, metals can be used over and over again, minimizing the need to mine and process virgin materials while decreasing energy and water requirements
Some studies suggest that recycling metals are between two and 10 times more energy efficient than smelting the metals from virgin ore.
At the same time, extraction alone currently accounts for seven percent of the world’s energy consumption, with emissions contributing significantly to climate change
When it comes to recycled paper – “recycled paper can, but not always, have an environmental advantage” (theconversation.com)
It depends on the type of paper though – white paper, newspaper, brown paperboard and cardboard, and also how the virgin paper product is made.
Some paper products will have a similar or lesser environmental footprint to make new, whilst others might be better to be recycled.
Also, some recycled paper (like white office paper) can be expensive to make – so there are financial issues to consider as well.
Something else to note with paper, is that it might only be able to be recycled around seven times on average before it can’t be recycled anymore – so there’s practicality concerns too.
There’s an environmental analysis of recycling, landfill and incineration at the listed ourworldindata.org resource
They compare ‘Global Warming Potential’, and ‘Energy Use’ of these three waste management options across a range of different plastic waste types.
What they note is that recycling ‘had the lowest global warming potential and energy use across nearly all of the studies. From an environmental perspective, recycling is usually the best option’.
So, at least when it comes to plastic, recycling might be the best option.
How Recycling Might Be Bad For The Environment
– Recycling still has a resource footprint, and environmental footprint
Recycling requires fuel for collection trucks and transport in between different parties in the recycling chain
At recycling facilities, there’s water use (for cleaning material), and energy use as well
Not only are there resources used for the recycling process, but energy use has a carbon footprint to consider too
Different recycling process and facilities will have different resource and environmental footprints
Examples Of Other Waste Management Options Being More Environmentally Friendly Than Recycling
Managing Carrier Bag Waste
Economic & Practical Considerations For Recycling
When looking at the eco considerations of recycling, we also need to balance that out by looking at the practical and economic considerations of recycling too i.e. whether certain materials and products can be recycled, and how economically feasible it is to do so.
One example of a practical consideration for recycling is that not all waste is recyclable.
Different types of plastic may not be recyclable at all, or may have very low recycling rates.
Some waste also can only be recycled a certain number of times before it has to be downcycled, or sent to another waste management option like landfill or incineration.