Though recycling has existed throughout history and has always been practised, it is now a crucial part of life. Recycled paper can acually be traced back to 9th century Japan. The Japanese people and culture started recycling paper soon after they learned how to make it. Ancient people have also recycled and reused almost everything they had because of its scarcity. But even though the concept of recycling has existed for that long, it has become popular just recently. Due to the issues and troubles facing our planet and affecting our environment nowadays, more and more people have been finding solutions in recycling and advocating for it. Some communities even have been collectively trying to recycle their waste to save the environment. So let’s explore exactly what recycling is, the importance of recycling in saving our environment, and what we can do to help.
What is Recycling?
Recycling is the process of recovering waste material and processing and converting it into new reusable products and objects. When waste and garbage get collected from all sorts of places, they usually end up getting burned in waste incinerators or buried in landfills. Recycling, however, allows the waste to go through a detailed process to reprocess it for reuse. This is done to save energy, reduce all kinds of pollution like air, paper, and plastic, and use materials that people throw away but could actually be extremely useful.
The word recycle itself is made up of the prefix re-, which means again, and the word cycle. This means to give something another cycle after its original cycle has already ended. So in that sense, recycling gives purpose to a thing people would have otherwise thought useless. That’s why recycling is important, and it’s equally important to understand the vital role recycling plays in our lives.
Why is Recycling important?
Recycling is important for various reasons: it has some positive effects and benefits on our environment and communities; it also helps prevent some of the threats facing our planet.
There are a lot of issues facing our environment and planet right now that we need to solve. Issues like plastic pollution, air pollution, deforestation, and global warming have been harming our Earth. Let’s take a look at the issues facing our environment so we can see how recycling helps us with them.
Plastic is one of the most pressing problems we’ve been struggling with over the past years. Plastic usage started back in the 1900s, but there has been an increase in its production lately. By 2018, plastic production was about 359 million metric tonnes per year after it has been about 1.5 million metric tonnes in 1950. More alarming, plastic is being used for more than just the essentials and there’s an increase in single-use plastic products. In the production process of plastics, additives have been added to make them more durable and less brittle. It’s estimated that plastic lasts in the environment for about 500 years or even more.
When people improperly get rid of and mindlessly throw away plastic waste, it gets scattered all over the land and the seas. And because plastic is so difficult to decompose and break down in the environment, it becomes harmful. Animals either get stuck in it, which endangers and possibly injures the animals, or mistake it for food and eat it. This can cause malnourishment, starvation, illness, and death.
Due to environmental conditions as well, plastic breaks down into microplastics and plastic particles that get carried away by the wind and seas. In water, fish eat the microplastics and plastic particles they find. In the open air, we inhale these plastic particles with every breath we take. This sadly endangers us as it pollutes our organic system and can cause serious diseases.
Now, do you see why recycling is important? Because when we properly dispose of plastic and it gets recycled, there will be no harm, either to us, the animals, or our planet.
Waste incinerators are places where waste gets burned. And as we all know, there’s no fire without smoke. The burning leads to the release of toxic fumes and smoke from the incinerators into the air. This affects the air quality that we breathe and pollutes our air with toxins. The air even gets double polluted when the waste being burned includes plastics; since plastics are derived from crude oils which release carbons when burnt, this harms our atmosphere. The air pollution caused by this can lead up to many harmful things. We wouldn’t be able to breathe properly because of the smoke and the fumes; it badly affects our health and can lead to heart disease, lung cancer, and respiratory diseases.
That’s why we need to increase our recycling; one of its alternatives is just burning the waste which has a lot of harmful effects on us and our atmosphere. In England alone, around 60% of the waste burnt in the incinerators can actually be recycled. So let’s try to think of a long-term solution and start investing in our health and planet.
Paper Production and Deforestation
The paper production and manufacturing process is also one of the dangers our environment faces. From beginning to end, the process starts with the cutting down of a tree and ends with emitting carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Even paper as small as receipts are greatly harmful to the environment: they are made with 10 million trees and use one billion gallons of water and 250 million gallons of oil. Paper production also uses about 40% of the world’s cut timber. More troublesome than this, more than 30 million acres of trees are cut on a yearly basis. The number of trees we kill just for paper is monumental and leads to deforestation.
Deforestation is the removal and clearance of the forests on the land. It leads to greenhouse gas emissions. Naturally, trees and forests hold carbon dioxide in their wood and leaves. When trees are cut down, the gas escapes into the atmosphere. About 12% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions are because of deforestation.
As if this isn’t enough, deforestation affects the animals and the indigenous people of the land. They once depended on the forest land to survive and make a living, but when there’s no more forest? To them, it’s almost as if there’s no more life.
Recycling paper, however, helps prevent almost all of this from happening. Instead of cutting down more trees (in turn, emitting greenhouse gases and endangering human and animal life), we’d be saving tree land as we wouldn’t need to cut them down anymore. Recycling one tonne of paper saves up to 17 trees and 4100 kilowatts per hour of electricity.
So to save ourselves before we destroy all that’s around us, it’s time to start recycling paper to avoid the currently everlasting fight against deforestation.
Landfills and Global Warming
One way of waste management is to take the waste and bury it in landfill sites. The way it works is that waste is collected and taken to a landfill site, where it would either be piled up on the ground or buried in a hole dug in the land. This can cause a lot of problems, like pollution, for the environment. Waste usually consists of organic waste, plastics, wood, and electronics. Many materials that are in the waste contain toxins that harm the land. Electronic waste actually includes hazardous materials like lead, mercury, acids, and solvents; all of the substances can and do infect the soil and the underground water.
As for organic waste, when it gets buried underground, it can no longer interact with the oxygen in the air, which doesn’t allow it to break down as fast as it usually does when out in the open. After a while, the waste starts producing methane. If methane gas builds up in the same spot, it can be a threat as it’s flammable. Methane is also a greenhouse gas much more potent than carbon dioxide, which increases global warming.
According to the United Nations, global warming is a long-term shift in temperatures and weather patterns. Since the 1800s, the shift is occurring due to human activities rather than natural ones. Global warming is mainly caused by greenhouse gases, gases that trap the heat in the atmosphere. This threatens our environment and planet for multiple reasons. The increasing temperature all over the globe affects both of our poles, the North and the South; ice at the poles starts melting, endangering animals and species living there. When ice melts, it adds more water to the oceans; hence, sea levels are gradually rising, and lands are gradually receding. It all disrupts all kinds of creatures, ranging from sea species to land animals. So we need to do our duty and protect them.
Though it sounds scary, it’s not an impossible scenario. All we need to do is reduce the amount of waste going to landfills. When we reduce the waste by reusing our products or recycling them, the methane gas and toxins produced in landfill sites can be easily managed when they’re not in huge quantities.
The importance of recycling isn’t just limited to preventing threats from occurring; its importance also lies in saving the energy of our planet and helping small communities and individuals. So let’s take a look at how we benefit from recycling and how it helps our planet.
It takes a lot of energy and tonnes of resources to manufacture a product from scratch. For example, as stated before, making receipts requires 10 million trees, one-billion gallons of water, and 250 million gallons of oil. The paper production industry on its own uses about 4% of the world’s energy. So it takes valuable energy and resources to make products. On the other hand, making the same product from recycled materials is much easier: the material got processed and refined once before so making the product will be a simpler process and will save energy and resources. Seventeen trees are saved when a tonne of paper is recycled; recycling aluminium can use only 5% of the energy used to make the original product and reduces the water and air pollution and energy use by 95%; to recycle one glass bottle is to save energy that lights a 100-watt light bulb for four hours. So recycling helps us conserve the energy of our planet and our natural resources.
When we become more aware and conscious of our environment and decide to recycle, investors would then encourage and help recycling plants. The recycling industry then would grow and, in turn, help the communities by providing employment options. In Northern Ireland, over 80% of what’s collected from the curbside boxes is recycled locally which creates more job opportunities for people living there. Like any other establishment or business, this boosts the economy, especially on a local level, and helps people find more jobs.
Now we know what threats our planet is facing due to improper waste management, threats like plastic pollution, air pollution, deforestation, global warming, and much more. And though recycling isn’t the only solution, it at least allows people to be more understanding and conscious of their actions and how they can affect our planet. So now we know that what we need to do is to reduce our consumption, reuse our products, and recycle our waste. But how is the waste recycled? And what waste can be recycled? Let’s find out.
Recyclables and the Recycling Process
Recyclables is the term used to describe the materials that can be recycled. Almost everything we know of can be recycled or even reused. The materials are both non-organic and organic waste; they include glass, paper (like cardboard, newspapers, etc.), plastics, metal, fabrics, electronics, and food.
The process of recycling starts really simple: recyclable waste needs to be collected. There are different methods of collecting the recyclables and four collection programs: curbside collection, drop-off centres, and buy-back centres.
Curbside collection is where recyclable plants would have systems in place to go and pick up people’s recyclable waste at the curbside. The waste could be divided into different sections for the different recyclable materials.
In the case curbside collection isn’t wanted, an alternative for this collection method is drop-off centres. As the name implies, drop-off centres are centres where people drop off their recyclable waste.
Buy-back centres are almost the same drop-off centres; the only difference is that buy-back centres are willing to buy the recyclable waste and pay a fee for it (drop-off centres mostly don’t pay any money for the recyclable materials).
After the collection process comes the sortation process. If the recyclables aren’t already sorted before getting collected, then they get sorted in the recyclable plants manually and automatically.
A good example of the recycling sorting process can be seen in Bryson Recycling, a recycling factory in Northern Ireland. They use wheelie boxes for the curbside collection method to collect the recyclable waste. The wheelie box is divided into different sections for different recyclables. At the curb, workers from Bryson Recycling further sort the waste by separating glass from paper and so on. This makes it easier for when they get back to the factory as almost no more sorting is needed.
Only plastics and metal need additional sorting to separate them. They’re sorted automatically: they’re added to a conveyor belt and at the top of it there’s a magnet that attracts all the metals and cans. Plastics are then sorted by the optical sorting method: a ray of light hits the waste (so it helps identify the plastics), then a jet of air separates it into a different section in the conveyor.
After the recyclables get sorted, they then start the recycling process. It’s a complex process that differs from each material to the next; here’s a general overview of how each material gets recycled and important information about each material’s recycling.
Glass is a material that’s 100% recyclable; it can be recycled repeatedly without losing its quality or purity. Not all glass products can be recycled as they use a different manufacturing process; if they get recycled with normal glass, they ruin the recycled glass and recycling process for that batch. The glass products that cannot be recycled include windows, mirrors, light bulbs, Pyrex, crystal, eyeglasses, and fluorescent lighting tubes.
To recycle glass, it should be free of all contaminants like metal or plastic lids. There’s a pre-treatment process where a jet of air is used to blow away paper or plastic; then a magnet is used to remove all the metal objects. There are different colours of glass products; if reprocessed together, they wouldn’t meet the standards for glass colouring. So glass waste, after the pre-treatment process, gets separated into different glass colours and washed to remove any impurities. The glass waste then gets broken up into small glass pieces that are called cullet. They then get crushed and mixed with raw material like sand or soda ash. They are melted together in a furnace at 1000 degrees Fahrenheit; then they are moulded into different glass products of different colours.
After going to the recycling plant, the paper gets separated into different types and grades. When it’s time for recycling, the paper gets added to soapy water to wash away all the residue from the original use, residue like ink, staples, plastic films, and glue. The paper is then put into a large holder filled with water; it gets mixed with the water to create a slurry. To make different paper products (like cardboard, toilet paper, office paper, and newspaper), different materials are added to the slurry. The final step is the slurry, using rollers, is spread into large thin sheets, left to dry, and gets rolled up to be cut off later and made into different products.
After the plastic waste gets separated from other materials, it needs to be divided into different types of plastic. A method used to separate plastics based on density is called the sink-float: plastic products are put in water where high-density plastic would sink and low-density plastic would float. Plastic waste then is washed to remove all kinds of contaminants and residues as they can ruin the recycled plastic. After that, the plastic is put in shredders and grinding machines to shred it into smaller flakes and tiny pieces. The final stage is where plastic is melted and forced through an extruder to form plastic pellets. The pellets then go through various methods to make different plastic products.
Metal waste, like plastic waste, is separated into different kinds of metal so it can be recycled. After the separation, the metal is shredded into small pieces; this allows the metal to take less time when melted. The smaller pieces are added to a furnace under a high temperature to be melted; the molten metal then goes through an electrolysis system to remove all the contaminants and impurities. Then it is shaped into ingots to be moulded and manipulated later on into different shapes and forms.
Clothes are first checked to see if they can be reused. If the clothes are in good shape, they’re sent to charities for further use. Afterwards, natural fabrics get pulled or shredded into fibres. The fibre then goes through a process where it is spun once then twice to create yarn, to be used later for knitting or sewing to make new clothes. Some fibres are compressed to make fillings for products like mattresses.
Synthetic fabrics, on the other hand, have a bit of a different process. The zippers and buttons are removed; the fabric is then shredded into smaller pieces. The shredded fabric gets moulded into pellets to be melted, later to be used to make fibres that make the clothes we know and love today.
Organic and Food Recycling
Before everything, we should know that not all organic waste can be recycled and that waste that cannot be recycled includes milk and oils. Now take a look at the recycling process.
Recycling organic waste turns it into soil compost and fertiliser. When organic waste is buried in landfills, it’s removed from air and oxygen; so it emits greenhouse gases like methane and CO2 as mentioned previously. So one way of recycling and composting organic waste is by using the gas emissions to get energy. This way is called Anaerobic Digestion. In this method, organic waste is placed in enclosed tanks that cut off all the oxygen. Bacteria and microorganisms then digest the waste and turn it into compost that gets used as fertilisers for the soil. Greenhouse gas emissions like methane are produced during the process; they get used as renewable energy to generate electricity for example.
Another method for recycling and composting organic waste is called In-Vessel Composting (IVC). The waste is screened to remove contaminants like metal and plastic. The waste is then shredded and placed in a closed vessel where oxygen, temperature, and moisture are carefully controlled to ensure the waste gets composted in an ideal environment. The waste starts to decompose naturally due to microorganisms breaking it down: this generates heat that raises the temperature to 60-70 degrees Celsius. It lasts from two to four weeks. Then the composted waste is placed in long rows, called windrows, to continue the recycling process; this lasts about ten to fourteen weeks with regular turning of the compost now and then. Some final tests are needed to make sure the quality is good, and the material is safe to be used as fertilisers.
As all the recyclable materials are now finally recycled and ready for reuse, they get distributed to companies and businesses that need them for their products or work.
What Can We Do for Recycling?
After all is said and done, and now that we know the importance of recycling and the threats if we don’t recycle, we need to know exactly what we can do as individuals to help save our planet.
The first thing we need to be mindful of is to reduce the products we buy and use. Oftentimes we’ll buy the products even though we don’t need them, maybe because of a discount offer. And since the more products we have, the more waste we produce, it’s always better to buy necessary products and not exceed our needs. When we do buy products, we need to keep in mind that the products are made of recyclable materials and can be recycled again.
We need to reduce our waste as well. We can do so by saving leftover food and eating it instead of throwing it away, or we can share it either with people we love and also our neighbours. This is to ensure the food isn’t wasted. Another way to reduce our waste is also by reusing plastic bags instead of throwing them away. Most shops baggage our products into plastic bags; so we can keep a drawer in our cabinets where we save plastic bags to reuse them as needed. Plastic bags aren’t the only products that can be reused; newspapers can be reused as a wrap for fragile products when we’re moving. Keep another drawer in your cabinets for some newspapers that you can use when needed.
If you have some old clothes you don’t want anymore, you can donate them to charities or give them away to people you know who need them. You can also get creative with your old clothes and turn them into different designs; jeans can be turned into bags, large t-shirts can be made into dresses, skirts can be made into blouses, and so much more. Just grab your sketch, draw the design, and start getting creative with the old material you have. If clothes cannot be salvaged at all, they can be cut into rectangles and used as cleaning rags. So there’s more than just one solution for each problem.
Glass products like jars and bottles can be reused at home as well. Instead of buying glass jars to store some food in the fridge or freezer, you can just thoroughly wash a jar that you have and use it. Jars can also be used to store your spices instead of keeping them in the plastic packaging they come in. If you fancy some homemade juice or just some cold water, you can use the glass bottles to store them in the fridge.
Waste, despite this, is inevitable, so we need to prepare for it as well. We can do a little research to find our local recycling plants. We can arrange curbside collection, or we can drop off the recyclable materials that we’ve gathered. It’s important to prepare the materials for recycling and so it’s better to separate them into different boxes; remember not to baggage them in bags as this can slow down the recycling process. For plastic, aluminium, and any food and drink container, it’s important to rinse out the food and drink residue and clean them; this helps quicken the recycling process.
If recycling at home is something you might like, some recycling you can do is paper recycling and organic waste compost.
For paper, you need paper scraps, an old blender, a tub, a framed screen, towels or old bedsheets, a sponge, and some water. Cut the paper scraps into small squares then put some paper in the blender alongside some water. Keep adding paper and water till the paper is gone and it turns into a slurry. Pour the slurry into a tub and fill it with water; the amount of water depends on the thickness you want for your paper – more water and less slurry mean thin paper; more slurry and less water mean thick paper. Use the framed screen to mould your paper: submerge the framed screen in the tub at an angle and get it out. Give it a little shake, let the waters drip, then put it on a towel or any old bedsheet. Use the sponge to press the paper into the towel then remove the frame. Hang the towel to dry and repeat the process. If you want to give your paper some colour, you can add some food colouring to the tub. Now that you have your recycled pieces of paper, you can get creative with the products you want to turn the paper into.
If you’re into gardening, you can compost your food waste. Just dig a small surface-level hole in the ground and add your organic waste to it. Cover it with soil, especially soil that has the nutrients it needs to compost; make sure not to smother it with soil so as not to cut out the oxygen, as it needs oxygen to decompose properly. Give it a little stir and turn it on a regular basis. It takes from about one to two months to compost. After it turns into compost, spread it into areas in your garden that need some fertilising and compost to grow your plants normally.
We can do more to help with recycling by educating our friends, relatives, and neighbours. Individual effort is appreciated, but to make more than a little difference, the effort needs to be collective. So we can speak with our friends and acquaintances to educate them on recycling and its benefits. At schools, we can speak with those in charge and help arrange activities that would encourage students and teachers alike to recycle. In our communities and neighbourhoods, we can dedicate one day monthly to spread the word and raise awareness of recycling and its importance.
Recycling teaches us compassion, patience, empathy, and respect; we learn to be mindful and conscious of our planet and the environment around us. We understand we’re not the only living beings on Earth and so we need to be thoughtful about our actions and their consequences. We set a great example for kids when we respect our planet like that and make a conscious effort to help it remain beautiful and keep it healthy for future generations. That’s why we need to always keep in mind that we must respect the planet that provides us with the sustenance we need and that it’s a two-way relationship. Just like our planet provides for us, we need to keep our planet healthy, look out for it, and always make it a better place.