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Recycling is an important in fighting climate change

Why is it so important to recycle our waste?

Recycling is easy and requires minimal effort and time. It saves energy, saves finite natural resources and reduces CO2 emissions, so why are so many of us not doing it?

Using recycled materials to create new products rather than raw materials saves energy. This is because it takes more energy to extract, refine, and transport raw materials so they can be used for industry, compared to recycling waste materials. Recycling still produces carbon emissions but as the materials do not need to go through such energy intensive processes as raw materials, the emissions are much less.

Saving energy reduces greenhouse gas emissions which helps fight climate change. In the UK recycling has already led to savings of more than 18 million tonnes of CO2 every year, which is the same as taking 5 million cars of the road!

Natural resources are also finite, and some are in very short supply. Mining, logging, and forestry which are needed to extract new raw materials can all damage the environment. If we recycle we can save trees, sand and land all of which are needed to protect wildlife and natural ecosystems.

It seems obvious, but when recycled materials are turned into new products the amount of waste going into landfill is reduced. Items that are sent to landfill produce gasses which harm the environment. For example, food waste in a landfill site does not decompose, it rots and this produces methane gas which is one of the most damaging greenhouse gases. According to Zero Waste Scotland, the carbon footprint of food waste from Scottish households in 2016 was three times that of plastic waste.

So, what happens after we put our materials in the recycling bin?

The recycling process is simple. The materials are sorted by hand then go through scanners to pick out objects such as cans, plastics, and eventually everything is separated and sent off to be remade or reused.

Unfortunately, around two thirds of our recycling end up in other countries to be recycled in order to reduce costs. In 2018, Malaysia imported 100,000 tonnes of recyclables which lead to a backlash where the environment minister said Malaysia was being treated as a “dumping ground”.

Although this is not ideal, there are reasons for sending recycling products abroad. Many of the countries that take the recyclables pay high prices for them as they do not have readily available raw materials. Also, the transport emissions are reduced as the materials are transferred in shipping containers that are returning to the countries. Mainly, it is important to remember that although sending the materials abroad they are still recycled which will help tackle climate change.

Despite recycling being a positive thing it is not always simple to understand.

For example, although technically all plastics can be recycled some are easier to recycle than others. Thermoplastic plastics, such as milk containers and water bottles, when heated will melt and then can be shaped into other materials. However thermosetting plastics, such as plastic plug sockets, are built to withstand heat and therefore do not melt and cannot be reshaped. It is possible to melt them eventually through a chemical process, however this is expensive, so they are classed as ‘unrecyclable’.

Likewise black plastics, which as often used in ready meal packaging, could in theory be recycled, but are not. The method used to colour the plastic makes it difficult for the lasers in the sorting to establish how to identify the plastic and it usually ends up going straight to landfill.

There are attempts to deal with this issue, such as removing all black plastics from sale, or creating a new type of black plastic that can be spotted by the lasers, however both of these options are expensive so unlikely to occur anytime soon.

Whilst some of us may question whether or not it is worth our time to recycle, organising our rubbish will save public money, create jobs, and reduce overall waste.

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Article Written by Meg Hendrie