To sort or not to sort, that is the question. Lots of people wonder whether it’s really worth their time and effort to separate, wash and store recyclable materials – especially if it takes more energy to recycle, or if the plastics sent for recycling end up in landfill.
The truth is, the issue is complex, and even experts can’t seem to agree on the economic and environmental benefits of recycling.
There are four popular arguments, typically used by organisations and individuals to promote recycling:
- It reduces landfill waste,
- It saves public money.
- It creates jobs
- It encourages consumers to reduce waste in the first place.
Let’s consider each of these in turn.
Recycling reduces landfill waste
Images of putrefying waste in landfill sites, generating greenhouse gas emissions and polluting the environment, are one of the most compelling reasons for recycling.
But the National Audit Office revealed that some of the plastics that residents separate for recycling are being exported overseas frst to China and now to places such as Malaysia and Vietnam, where there are insufficient checks to ensure this material is actually recycled.
The industry is also facing investigation for fraud and corruption over these matters. So it could be that millions of tonnes of UK recycling is simply ending up in landfill in other parts of the world. Not the answer.
This Sky News video/episode called DIRTY BUSINESS investigates this issue and what 'really happens to your recycling'. It certainly educated me on issues I was totally unaware of.
Recycling saves public money
It costs a lot of money for local authorities to manage household waste. Disposal facilities owned by private companies, such as Veolia and Sita charge local authorities gate fees per tonne of waste – around £107 per tonne for landfill and £86 per tonne for incineration.
In the past, almost 80% of waste was sent to landfill. Now, more than 80% of waste is recycled, composted or incinerated.
Local authorities in England produced 22.4 million tonnes of waste in 2017, of which 45 per cent was recycled – so that’s a lot of money saved.
Recycling creates jobs
The charity Green Alliance claimed that recycling and reuse could create over 200,000 new jobs in the UK. Compared to disposal, recycling does create jobs, because waste sorted by consumers provides feed stock for an economy in global materials.
How consumers sort their waste – whether in one box or separate boxes – leads to different supply chains and labour processes.
Many jobs in the recycling industry are low skilled and dirty work. Yet there are also mid-skilled, professional jobs – such as public and private waste service officers, who manage and supervise operations – and these opportunities will grow if the government creates incentives for producers to use recyclable materials, or invests in systems to promote reuse.
There are, of course, more effective ways of dealing with waste than recycling. Reusing, reducing and preventing waste – for example, by choosing products that are less packaged, refusing disposable coffee cups or buying secondhand – are all better options.
So responsible waste management is really a responsibility shared between governments, producers, local authorities, waste companies and citizens. In particular, the companies that create the materials that become household waste have huge power to reduce it.
So, on the whole, it is worth the effort to sort your waste, despite some problematic practices, because recycling does drive down the amount of waste going to landfill .There’s still a long way to go, before the UK can manage its waste sustainably as a society – and it’ll only get there if governments and citizens keep up their efforts to improve this process.
We are, I believe heading in the right direction.
Thank you for reading.