What is Recycling & Why is it Important? (Explained)

In our consumer-driven society, recycling is a critical aspect of achieving sustainability. Recycling is one of the three R’s (reduce, reuse and recycle), which seeks to lower the amount of waste generated within our society.

Read on to fully understand the definition of recycling, its importance, its benefits, and insight on how does it helps the environment.

What is Recycling?

Recycling is the process of converting waste into new materials and/or objects. The original product (e.g. aluminum can) is collected and taken to a processing facility where it is broken down into its raw form (e.g. aluminum). The raw material is then used to create a new product, saving energy, time and money.

Recycling has many benefits to the environment:

Recycling prevents pollution

Recycling helps prevent air pollution (e.g. from incineration) and water and ground pollution (e.g. from landfills). It also reduces the number of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere, which helps to fight climate change.

Recycling helps protect the planet

Recycling helps protect our planet, natural resources and the environment by converting products at the end of their life cycle into new materials. For example, a can of soda can be re-manufactured and reused. Recycling an old can into a new can saves over 95% of the energy required to make a can from virgin materials.

Recycling saves energy & natural resources

Recycling ensures that the energy and raw materials used to make items and products in the first place do not go to waste. At the same time, it reduces the need to extract and refine new resources and process raw materials.

Recycling reduces waste produced

Recycling allows products to be used to their fullest potential. Most items that are disposed of have hardly been used and are only being disposed of because they no longer serve a purpose. It is estimated that up to 75% of all waste can be recycled or repurposed.

Recycling reduces waste sent to landfills

Recycling reduces the amount of garbage we send to landfills. When waste sits rotting away on landfills, it leeches toxins into the groundwater and soil, and gives off greenhouse gases and carbon dioxide like methane as it decomposes, which contributes to global warming.

What Items are Recyclable?

Materials that can be recycled and how to recycle them vary by municipality and state. It is thus very important to understand and research what can be recycled in your area and how. For example, some products or items can be recycled through curbside recycling programs, while others need to be taken to a recycling facility or drop-off center.

Curbside Recycling Programs

These programs exist within most municipalities across the United States. Materials are picked up alongside weekly or bi-weekly garbage pickup.

Some examples of recyclable products include aluminum cans, plastic water bottles, food containers, cardboard boxes, mixed papers and much more.

Recycling Facilities & Drop-off Centers

For larger and more specialized items, such as electronic waste or metals, it is best to go to a recycling facility or depot where they can properly handle those materials.

There are several benefits to going directly to a facility, including convenience and reassurance that your materials are being recycled.

There is also the potential for financial reimbursement, as some metals (e.g. copper), generate a nice cash incentive because of their high demand.

How Does Recycling Works?

Separating, collecting, and re-manufacturing used products into new materials.

Step 1: Collection

Recyclable materials are often collected through curbside programs, drop-off centers and deposit or refund programs. Once the recyclable products and materials are collected, they are sent to a facility where they are prepared and then sold to processing companies.

Step 2: Processing

Once the recycled materials are received by the processing companies, they are sorted, cleaned and processed into materials that can be used for manufacturing.

Step 3: Manufacturing

All recyclables need to be broken down, melted or liquified. Then they can make new materials or mix with resources to create new materials.

The resulting recycled processed materials are sold to raw materials. These recycled raw materials are then used to make household items, such as newspapers, paper towels, aluminum cans, plastic and glass containers, and plastic laundry detergent bottles, among many other things.

Step 4: Ready for consumption

The resulting products made from recycling materials are then ready for consumption. This step closes the loop as consumers buy new products made from recycled materials. Most times, consumers don’t even realize the products they are purchasing are manufactured from recycled materials.

A few examples of products that can be made with recycled materials:

  • Aluminum cans
  • Car bumpers
  • Cereal boxes
  • Egg cartons
  • Glass containers
  • Laundry detergent bottles
  • Newspapers
  • Paper towels
  • Steel products

Why is Recycling Important?

Recycling is a key component of waste reduction. It is the third component of what something commonly known as the 3 R’s – reduce, reuse and recycle.

Recycling reduces the impact that manufactured materials have on the environment. It also reduces the need for extracting, refining and processing new materials through activities such as mining, quarrying, and logging.

Resource extraction is an energy intensive activity that creates both air and water pollution. Recycling saves energy, conserves raw materials and reduces greenhouse gases.

Recycling can also prevent the waste of potentially useful materials and reduce the consumption of natural resources. For example, some materials, such as plastics, take hundreds of years to degrade and decompose.

Recycling prevents materials from ending up in a landfill or incinerator and instead ensures that they are processed into new material.

Recycling has many societal benefits. It generates economic security as it taps into domestic markets and creates jobs locally.

Recycling helps tackle climate change and it also:

  • Conserves raw materials
  • Reduces litter
  • Reduces pollution
  • Reduces land needed for landfill space
  • Creates jobs
  • Alleviates poverty
  • Encourages community participation

Recycling has many benefits to society, the economy, and the environment. It is a critical component of ensuring a sustainable future.

What Happens if we Don’t Recycle?

More greenhouse gas will be released

Greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide contribute to global warming, and the breakdown of the vast mountains of waste on landfill sites is a big contributor. If we don’t recycle, this problem will only get worse.

Fossil fuels will run out

Fossil fuels are used for many things, including to make plastics, so if we don’t recycle plastics, we have to draw from the precious depleting reserve. Current estimates suggest that fossil fuels will run out by 2050. Other materials are also running out from the precious metals used in electronics.

Landfill space will be overloaded

We can’t keep producing more and more waste without attempting to recycle. Landfill space is running out, and apart from that, sending waste to landfills is an expensive and unsustainable option, anyway. Recyclable items take up valuable space that non-recyclable materials could otherwise occupy.

Natural environments and habitats will be destroyed

By failing to reuse and recycle products and materials that already exist, new raw materials will need to be sourced and old products and materials will be disposed of in landfills. This has negative impacts on the natural environment and wildlife habitats because of encroachment, the release of toxins and leaching, and resource extraction.

Increase in pollution

If products and materials are not recycled, they will inevitably end up somewhere. The more recyclables that are thrown in the garbage, the faster landfills are going to fill up. That means that other avenues for disposal will be explored, such as incineration.

Incinerators release harmful pollution that poses a risk to human health and air quality. In addition, raw materials will need to be extracted to replace non-recycled productions, which will lead to an increase in pollution. Resource extraction creates substantial air and water pollution.

Alternative to Recycling

Recycling does not always have to involve deposing of an item or product. Upcycling or repurposing is transforming unwanted products into new materials or products.

Within your own household, you can easily recycle items so that they serve a new purpose. For example, you could use an empty yogurt container as a planter or a glass jar for meal preparation.

There are so many ways to upcycle or repurpose common household products.

Three Upcycling Ideas

  • Cut an old t-shirt into rags
  • Use toilet paper rolls for art projects
  • Use tin cans to store utensils

Final Thoughts on What is Recycling & Why is it Important

Recycling has many benefits for society, for the environment and for the economy. By utilizing materials that already exist, it reduces the amount of pollution, resources and energy used to produce new products.

While recycling is an important part of our society, there also needs to be an emphasis on upcycling. Upcycling is when you take unwanted products and, instead of disposing of them, they are re-purposed and used for something else. In a lot of cases, upcycling mitigates the need to purchase a new product, which helps reduce consumption.

Related content: How to Recycle & What Items are Recyclable?

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