Pros and Cons of Recycling (Benefits & Disadvantages)

Recycling as a waste management option has different pros and cons compared to other waste management options like landfill and incineration.

In this quick guide, we list those potential benefits and disadvantages.


Summary – Do The Pros Of Recycling Outweigh The Cons?

In some cities, and for some materials (like precious metals or metals like aluminum), yes.

And, in some cities, for some materials, no.

Overall, as a general rule of thumb, we want to reduce and re-use or recycle materials from an environmental perspective first (following the waste hierarchy), before going to landfill or incineration.

This certainly helps with sustainability in terms of resource depletion.

But, landfill and incineration technology has improved over the years, and depending on the waste type, can be better options sometimes from an environmental and economic perspective (glass is one such example of a material that might fit this criteria).

In each city, a lifecycle cost/benefit analysis should be done for each type of waste, weighing up the cost/benefits socially, environmentally, economically and so on, for the short and long term.

Cities like San Francisco are examples of cities that have very high recycling/composting rates comparatively to landfill.

But, there are collection fees to offset that, and it has to make sense for a particular city.

Developing countries may not have the luxury of being able to set up efficient recycling facilities due to infrastructure and financial constraints, having to rely on open/uncontained dumping sites.

We can see that recycling is different:

Between different States (within the US for example)

Between different countries (between parts of the US and parts of Europe when talking about glass recycling for example)

With different materials (the process to recycle glass or plastic, is different to the process to recycle stainless steel for example)

With different products (recycling a single type of plastic is different to recycling a sports drink bottle with 3 different types of plastic for example


So, analysing recycling can be nuanced, and can depend on individual circumstances.


Pros Of Recycling (Benefits)

Helps Address Resource Depletion & Resource Recovery

There is less resource depletion, as materials are recycled and re-used rather than being thrown away or virgin materials having to be used for new products (virgin materials such as new metals, or fossil fuels for plastics for example)


Can Help Save Energy

Recycling can use less total energy than other waste management options


Can Help Reduce Emissions

Recycling can have a lower greenhouse gas emissions output than other waste management options


Don’t Have To Deal With Eco Issues That You Do With Landfill

Recycling means you don’t have to deal with managing the environmental issues of leachate management, and methane and CO2 emissions from some landfill sites


Don’t Have To Deal With Eco Issues That You Do With Incineration

Recycling means you don’t have to deal with managing the environmental issues of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from some incineration plants


Can Create Jobs

Recycling processing, in cities like San Francisco, might create up to 20 more jobs than landfill sites – so, it can be better for employment


Recycled Materials Add To The Economy

The market for recycled materials also boosts the economy


Some Materials Are Well Suited To Recycling

Some materials like metal and aluminum can be recycled an unlimited amount of times – this has benefits like reducing mining for metals.

Recycling metals can also be very profitable


Can Be Efficient

Single stream recycling in some cities is very efficient


Some Cities Have Already Achieved Very High Recycling Rates

Cities like San Francisco have achieved around an 80% recycling and composting rate (with the rest of waste going to landfill) – showing where the potential for recycling might lie in the future


Recycling Facilities Might Have A Longer Lifespan Than Landfill

Recycling facilities can run as long as needed, whereas landfill sites have a limited time (might be around 100 years) before you have to replace the lining, and eventually pay to close and rehabilitate the site


Recycling Facilities Don’t Have To Worry About Certain Risk Factors That Landfill Does

Like overflow, flooding, soil suitability, and bushfire risks that landfills do


There Might Be More Potential To Grow & Improve The Recycling Market As A Whole In The Future

Innovation in the market for recycled materials, such as glass, could boost the economic viability of recycling more widely, and also create new markets for recycling i.e. increase demand


There Might Be Potential To Increase Recycling Rates Of Certain Materials Like Glass In Some Countries

Some sources indicate that there is still potential to vastly improve recycling in countries like the US for materials like glass (as long as the cost and time invested has a proportionate or worthwhile tradeoff)


Some Recycling Plants Can Be Cheaper Than Some Incineration Plants

Depending on the technology and systems used, the cost per ton to recycle can be cheaper than to incinerate (however, the most advanced recycling facilities can be quite costly).


Cons Of Recycling (Disadvantages)

Recycling Can Be Only A Temporary Fix For Some Materials

Recycling only delays some materials and products ending up in landfill or being incinerated.

For example, you can only recycle plastic and paper a certain amount of times before the fibres shorten and become weak, and the quality of the recycled material isn’t good enough (there’s a limit to how many times you can recycle some materials)


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


Can Be Less Efficient & More Time Intensive

Recycling can be a lot less efficient and more time consuming than landfill and incineration in some instances … especially where incompatible waste is coming in, where a lot of sorting is required, and so on


Not All Materials Can Be Recycled

Some materials are non recyclable, too soft, don’t have the right chemical make up, or have other factors that make them not suitable to be recycled


Product Design Can Be An Issue For Recycling

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


Not All Materials Make Environmental Or Economic Sense To Recycle

Glass for example might be more practical to make new from virgin materials, and plastic doesn’t have a good recycled economic value when oil prices drop (i.e. recyclers would actually lose money).


Quality Standards For Recycled Materials May Mean Less Waste Is Recycled

Certain quality or integrity standards in some States or countries may mean that some recycled material doesn’t meet that standard (due to having it’s structure or appearance compromised)


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


Can Require Sophisticated and Advanced Technology

Recycling of alloy metals can also require advanced machinery.

Even regular recycled waste in cities like San Francisco can used very advanced and expensive machinery


Contamination Issues

Food waste and organic waste can contaminate plastics and other recyclables – making them non recyclable if not washed first


Water Footprint To Consider

Recycling plants with washing facilities can use a lot of water


Potentially High Costs

Recycling facilities can be very expensive to set up and maintain/operate in some cities


Developing Countries May Be At A Disadvantage

They often don’t have the funding and infrastructure to set up advanced recycling facilities


Transport Footprint To Consider

Recycling can have a much larger transport footprint (transporting between different facilities for collecting, sorting, processing and refining, supplying, and re-using materials) than other waste management processes


Landfill Can In Some Ways Be Better Environmentally Than Recycling

The newest landfill sites with good leachate management and a good methane capture to energy system may be better for some types of waste than recycling


Incineration Can In Some Ways Be Better Environmentally Than Recycling

The newest incineration plants that minimise air pollution and greenhouse gases may be better for some types of waste than recycling (Sweden has some of the newest incineration technology and they actually import waste from other countries)


Recycling vs Landfill vs Incineration vs Composting: Comparison

Read a short comparison guide here of the different major waste management options.








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