Pros & Cons Of Recycling (Benefits & Disadvantages)

Recycling is one of main options for managing waste in society, with two others being sending waste to landfill, and incineration.

In the guide below, we list the potential pros and cons of recycling general waste.

 

(Note – the guide below complements our separate guide on the pros and cons of recycling specifically plastic as a material (as opposed to general waste).)

 

Summary – Pros & Cons Of Recycling

Potential Pros

A summary list of the potential pros outlined in the guide below include:

There Different Types & Methods Of Recycling

Some Materials Have A High Recycling Rate

There May Be Potential To Increase Recycling Rates Of Some Materials In The Future

The Recycling Market May Grow In The Future, & Have Potential For Improvements

Some Materials Can Be Recycled Many Times, Or An Infinite Amount Of Times

Some Cities Have Already Achieved High Recycling Rates

May Have Several Economic Benefits

May Have Several Sustainability & Environmental Benefits

May Have Several Benefits Compared To Landfills Specifically

May Have Several Benefits Compared To Incineration Specifically

Some Types Of Recycling May Be Efficient In Some Instances

Recycling Might Help Realize The Full Value Of Some Types Of Waste That Would Have Gone To Landfill

 

Potential Cons

A summary list of the potential cons outlined in the guide below include:

Some Materials Can’t Be Recycled At All

Some Materials Have A Low Recycling Rate

Increasing Recycling Rates Of Some Materials May Have Economic & Practical Challenges To Consider

Some Materials Can Only Be Recycled A Limited Number Of Times, & Recycling May Only Delay Sending These Materials To Other Waste Management Options

Recycling Some Materials Can Lead To A Lower Quality, Or Lower Value Material

Some Recycled Materials Still Use A Certain % Of Virgin Materials

May Have Economic Drawbacks, Or Not Be Economically Feasible In Some Ways

There Can Be Practical Issues With Recycling

May Have Toxicity Issues, Or Environmental Issues In Some Instances

May Have Drawbacks Compared To Landfill

May Have Drawbacks Compared To Incineration

Can Require Sophisticated and Advanced Technology For Some Types/Forms Of Recycling

Some Types Of Recycling Systems May Not Be Available To Developing Countries & Lower Income Cities

There’s Sometimes A Significant Transport Footprint To Consider

Reducing Waste May Be A Better Option That Recycling Waste

Reliance On Recycling Without Cutting Consumption Of Some Materials Can Lead To A Range Of Issues

San Francisco’s Waste Management System Is Not Without Potential Drawbacks

 

What Waste Management Options Are Most Commonly Being Used By Cities Worldwide Right Now?

There are examples of some cities like San Francisco who have very high recycling/composting rates compared to landfill.

But, these cities seem to be the exception at this point in time.

The reality is that many countries and cities currently rely on landfills to dispose of a significant % of their general waste (compared to recycling and incineration), and the same trend follows with the majority of some specific materials like plastic also going to landfill.

Although average global recycling rates and incineration rates may increase in the future, it might be accurate to say that landfills are at least an important part of the short to medium term waste management strategies of many cities.

 

Potential Pros Of Recycling

There Different Types & Methods Of Recycling

Each of these types and methods of recycling offer different capabilities to recycle different materials in different ways.

For example, mechanical recycling, energy recycling, and chemical recycling all offer different capabilities for recycling materials.

 

Some Materials Have A High Recycling Rate

For example, some metals have a high recycling rate compared to other materials on both a global average, and national average level.

 

There May Be Potential To Increase Recycling Rates Of Some Materials In The Future

Some reports identify what the current problems are with recycling specific materials (such as glass) in some countries.

Implementing changes in glass material and glass recycling related industries based on these problems may have the potential to increase the recycling rates of glass in a specific country.

Implementing changes may not be without challenges though – we identify potential challenges in the cons section below in this guide. 

Redesigning products that use specific materials may also help increase recycling rates

 

The Recycling Market May Grow In The Future, & Have Potential For Improvements

Innovation in materials, product design and recycling system capabilities could all help create new demand for some recycled materials in the future, and also create new markets in some instances. 

 

Textile recycling may be one example of a recycling industry that may have technology developments in the future that may open up the capabilities of what can be recycled. Chemical recycling of textiles may be one example

 

There may also be better processes and ways to recycle and recover metals from EV batteries in the future.

 

A much higher % of e-waste is estimated to be able to be recycled than what currently is being recycled

 

Some Materials Can Be Recycled Many Times, Or An Infinite Amount Of Times

Closed loop recycling is usually the term used to describe recycling where materials can be recycled over and over again for their original use

Some metals for example can be recycled over and over.

Aluminum cans might be an example of an item that can be recycled many times over.

This might be good from a resource depletion perspective, as less resources have to be mined/extracted, and less virgin materials have to be used to make new products. 

Some reports list aluminum cans as closed loop for this reason

 

The best recycling is closed-loop: Steel cans and glass bottles are recycled into more cans and bottles, which are in turn recyclable (popularmechanics.com)

 

Some Cities Have Already Achieved High Recycling Rates

Cities like San Francisco have achieved an 80% overall recycling and composting rate (i.e. 80% of all waste going to recycling and compost), with the rest of waste going to landfill.

This shows where the potential for recycling might lie in the future for some cities with the funding and capability to scale up recycling programs and systems.

 

May Have Several Economic Benefits

– Recycling Is It’s Own Market

Recycling is it’s own market, and, there’s a number of related markets along the recycling chain, including recycling of waste, re-using or repurposing recycled waste, supply of recycled material, and products made from recycled material (as opposed to virgin materials)

These markets all have their own economic impact and value

 

From greenbiz.com:

[In 2014] the recycling industry was an enormous economic driver in the United States.

In 2014, the recycling industry employed more than 1.1 million people, generated over $236 billion in gross annual revenues and saved municipal budgets over $3 billion in avoided landfill disposal fees.

[There’s also the local economic value that recycling provides. Recycling creates local jobs, builds shareholder value, preserves natural resources and generates revenue locally] 

 

– Can Be Profitable 

Recycling some materials and items can be profitable.

Some metals for example can be very profitable to recycle – the main alloying elements of stainless steel are all valuable

 

– Can Create Employment Opportunities

There’s not only the total number of jobs that the recycling industry provides, but, reports also indicate that recycling might create 20 jobs per ton of material compared to if that material was put in landfills

 

May Have Several Sustainability & Environmental Benefits

– May Help Address Resource Depletion By Recovering & Recycling Resources

When materials are recycled, they are able to be recovered and used again in the economy.

Recycled materials, and repurposing used products and waste are examples of this.

If the materials are thrown away, they are lost to the economy, and completely new/virgin materials and resources have to be extracted and used instead.

Recycling may help with some resource depletion issues in this way.

A few examples of materials that are recycled and recovered frequently might include …

Some reports indicate that about 75% of all aluminum ever produced is still in productive use today

Additionally, according to some reports, about 60% of some stainless steel products are made of recycled content 

 

[When we recycle glass, we are saving the virgin material sand] (popularmechanics.com)

 

– May Save Energy

Recycling may use less total energy than other waste management options in some instances

For example, recycling aluminum may save a significant amount of energy compared to producing it new

Recycling glass or using recycled glass cullet may also save more energy than producing it new

Recycling specific products may save energy too. epa.gov indicates that recycling laptops may have this potential: ‘Recycling one million laptops saves the energy equivalent to the electricity used by more than 3,500 US homes in a year’

 

– May Reduce Emissions

Recycling may produce less total emissions than other waste management options

Additionally, using recycled materials in new products can reduce emissions.

Using the example of aluminum again … recycling aluminum can reduce carbon emissions compared to producing aluminum new

Using recycled glass can also reduce the carbon footprint of glass

 

– May Help Reduce General Environmental Impact For Some Materials

For example, some reports indicate that recycling paper reduces the eco impact by half

 

May Have Several Benefits Compared To Landfills Specifically

– Environmental

Recycling does not present the potential environmental issues that landfill might with leachate, and also methane and CO2 emissions from decomposing organic waste

 

– Lifespan

Recycling facilities might have a longer lifespan than some landfills.

Recycling facilities may need to replace equipment and machinery.

However, landfill sites might only last a certain amount of time before the lining either has to be replaced, or the landfill site has to be closed and the site rehabilitated

 

– Risk Factors

Recycling facilities may not be exposed to certain risk factors that some landfill are.

Examples might include overflow, flooding, soil suitability, and bushfire risks

 

May Have Several Benefits Compared To Incineration Specifically

– Environmental

Recycling does not present the potential environmental issues that incineration might with air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from burning waste at some incineration plants, and also the by-product of fly ash waste

 

– Economic

Depending on the technology and systems used, the cost per ton to recycle can be cheaper than to incinerate (however, advanced recycling facilities might be more expensive on a per ton basis).

 

Some Types Of Recycling May Be Efficient In Some Instances

For example, single stream recycling might be efficient in some cities 

 

[Single stream collection may increase the efficiency of some recycling activities, and may in some instances lower collection costs/fees] (popularmechanics.com)

 

Recycling Might Help Realize The Full Value Of Some Types Of Waste That Would Have Gone To Landfill

Some studies show there may a significant amount of waste that currently goes to landfill

Recycling this waste could be one way to capitalize on this potential value

 

A recent study showed 90% of what goes to landfill has market value … (popularmechanics.com)

 

Some estimates indicate that around 60% of the waste that currently ends up in San Francisco waste bins, could be recycled or composted

 

Potential Cons Of Recycling 

Some Materials Can’t Be Recycled At All

Some plastics can’t be recycled at all, and there are a range of potential reasons for this.

As just one example, food waste and organic waste can contaminate plastics and other recyclables – making them non recyclable if not washed first

As another example, the chemistry makeup of some materials make them hard to recycle or non-recyclable

 

Beyond just materials, some waste items can’t be recycled in some places for various reasons:

Some types of textiles are sent to landfill when they are delivered to textile recyclers because they can’t be recycled or they are very difficult to recycle.

 

Some Materials Have A Low Recycling Rate

For example, some types of plastics are recycled at very low rates, and plastic overall as a material has a low global recycling rate compared to some other materials.

The material itself can be a major reason for it’s low recycling rate, but, there can be other reasons including but not limited to the design of the product a material is used in, the recycling programs, facilities and systems available in a city or town, and other factors like economics and practical considerations.

 

Beyond just materials, some items have a low recycling rate for various reasons:

E-waste isn’t recycled at a high rate in some countries

Some types of batteries have a low recycling rate

 

Increasing Recycling Rates Of Some Materials May Have Economic & Practical Challenges To Consider

We gave the example in the pros section of potentially being able to increase the recycling rate of glass.

It should be noted though that this wouldn’t be without potential economic and practical challenges.

As one example, sourcing readily available and quality supplies of recycled glass cullet may be a challenge.

Additionally, in some countries, depending on the market conditions, it can be cheaper to import glass from other countries that it is to recycle glass locally

 

Some Materials Can Only Be Recycled A Limited Number Of Times, & Recycling May Only Delay Sending These Materials To Other Waste Management Options

For example, plastic and also paper might be examples of materials that can only be recycled a limited number of times 

Recycling materials like this initially, may only delay sending them to landfill or incineration where they eventually end up (because they can no longer be recycled at a certain point)

So, the tradeoffs of recycling them in the first place should be weighed up

 

Recycling Some Materials Can Lead To A Lower Quality, Or Lower Value Material

Recycling some materials may cause the fibres to shorten and become weak, and the quality of the recycled material may decrease 

Not only might this lower the performance of the material, but, it may result in a material that isn’t worth as much to manufacturers because using the material leads to a lower quality product, or a product that doesn’t meet certain standards or requirements

Furthermore, quality or integrity standards for materials in some places may mean that less materials are sent to be recycled in the first place, as recyclers know that the recycled material may have issues with meeting these standards (due to having it’s structure or appearance compromised, or some other factor)

This material may end up going to landfill, going to incineration, or being downcycled or repurposed into some type of secondary use.

In addition to some plastics being downcycled via the recycling process, the metal from some aluminum from soda cans might be downcycled as well when it’s mixed together.

 

From popularmechanics.com:

… some materials are currently “downcycled” into less desirable products that can be recycled no further.

Soft-drink bottles made from PET (polyethylene terephthalate), for example, often end up as polyester fibers in clothing or carpets.

 

Related to the quality of recycled material, some manufacturers may not want to use recycled EV batteries because of liability concerns.

 

Some Recycled Materials Still Use A Certain % Of Virgin Materials

One example might be stainless steel, with some reports indicating that stainless steel today might be made up of 60% recycled material and 40% virgin material

So, recycled material products aren’t always 100% recycled, or truly recycled

 

May Have Economic Drawbacks, Or Not Be Economically Feasible In Some Ways

– Isn’t Always Profitable

Recycling some materials and some items in some markets isn’t always profitable or economically feasible.

For example, glass can be cheaper to import than recycle in some countries, and plastic might not have as high of an economic value when oil prices drop

 

– Potentially High Set Up & Operation Costs

There’s different costs to consider for different types of recycling facilities

Some advanced recycling facilities can also be very expensive to set up and maintain/operate in some cities

 

From popularmechanics.com:

[Recycling technology isn’t cheap] … a typical single-stream facility costs $8 million to $10 million, more than double the price of a dual-stream facility (where paper is collected separately) 

[There might be a potential tradeoff to consider here with the costs of each type of facility, the potential increased efficiency of single stream recycling, the potential higher recycling rate of single stream due to increased efficiency, and the ability to increase in the overall recycling rate of all materials with the ability to collect and recycle paper with dual stream recycling]

 

– Some Recycling Programs Can Be More Costly Than Some Landfills

The rate (in dollars per ton of waste) to recycle can be more expensive in some cities than landfill dumping

 

– Other Economic Challenges

The glass recycling industry in the US is an example of an industry that faces various economic challenges

 

There Can Be Practical Issues With Recycling

– Can Be Less Efficient & More Time Intensive Than Other Waste Management Options In Some Instances

Recycling can be less efficient and more time consuming than landfill and incineration in some instances, like for example where processing of waste (such as sorting, separating, cleaning, etc) is required before the waste can be recycled or re-used

In the US for example, sorting glass from other waste in single stream bins can be time consuming (in order to find glass that manufacturers will pay for)

 

– Product Design Can Be An Issue For Recycling

Some products (like sport drinks with 2 or 3 different types of plastic) can be difficult or not very efficient to recycle

In some instances, these types of products can’t be recycled at all.

 

May Have Toxicity Issues, Or Environmental Issues In Some Instances

– Recycling Can Use Heavy Chemicals

Some recycling processes such as the recycling of some alloy metals like stainless steel can use heavy chemicals to separate and recover certain elements

Aluminum is another example of a metal that can sometimes use chlorine in it’s recycling process

 

– Water Footprint To Consider

Recycling plants with washing facilities have a water footprint to consider

 

– Energy Footprint To Consider

Some reports indicate that some recycling practices can be energy intensive compared to other waste management practices

 

May Have Drawbacks Compared To Landfill

The newest landfill sites with a good soil liner, a good leachate management system, and a good methane capture to energy system, may be better in a range of ways for some types of waste compared to recycling

 

May Have Drawbacks Compared To Incineration

The newest incineration plants that minimise air pollution and greenhouse gases, and have a way to manage fly ash waste by product, may be better in a rang of ways for some types of waste compared to recycling

 

Can Require Sophisticated and Advanced Technology For Some Types/Forms Of Recycling

Recycling of alloy metals for example can require advanced machinery.

Even regular recycled waste in cities like San Francisco can used very advanced recycling systems

Unless cities have access to these systems, certain types of recycling will not be available to them

Advanced machinery and equipment can also be expensive

 

Some Types Of Recycling Systems May Not Be Available To Developing Countries & Lower Income Cities

Cities without a certain level of funding, infrastructure, and organisation of their waste management systems and governments, may not have ability to set up advanced recycling facilities and systems

Only open/uncontained dumping sites may be available to some very low income cities and towns

 

There’s Sometimes A Significant Transport Footprint To Consider

Not all recycling is kept completely local

Some recycling chains can involve some waste items being transported long distances between different facilities and parties (sometimes in different countries or States) for collecting, sorting, processing and refining, supplying, and re-using materials

There’s a cost to this recycling chain, as well as the use of resources and the environmental impact of this footprint

 

Reducing Waste May Be A Better Option That Recycling Waste

Various reports indicate that a sustainable waste management strategy might include efforts to reduce waste by producers and consumers as a priority over recycling.

 

Reliance On Recycling Without Cutting Consumption Of Some Materials Can Lead To A Range Of Issues

For example, relying heavily on recycling aluminum without cutting consumption may still lead to issues with meeting demand in the future, alongside other recycling related issues

 

San Francisco’s Waste Management System Is Not Without Potential Drawbacks

For example, there are collection fees to consider.

Citizens also have to ask the question of who is paying for any new waste collection programs and systems with fees and taxes.

 

Recycling vs Landfill vs Incineration vs Composting: Comparison

We’ve put together a short comparison guide here of the different major waste management options.

 

Best Way To Manage Waste In Society

We also put together a separate guide on what the best way to manage waste in society might be

 

 

Sources

1. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/pros-cons-landfills-benefits-disadvantages/

2. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/is-recycling-economical-and-profitable/ 

3. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/are-landfills-good-or-bad-for-the-environment/ 

4. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/is-recycling-good-or-bad-for-the-environment/ 

5. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/landfill-vs-recycling-vs-incineration-vs-compost-comparison-which-is-best/

6. https://www.greenbiz.com/article/yes-recycling-still-good-business-if-happens

7. https://www.popularmechanics.com/science/environment/a3752/4291566/

8. https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/guide-facts-and-figures-report-about-materials#Materials

9. https://www.epa.gov/recycle/electronics-donation-and-recycling

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