Recycling is a well established waste management strategy for many developed nations. However, recycling is not always the best solution to improve environmental performance, and the reasons for this are important to explore. There are three key points to consider:
1. How the recycling market functions – how is it affected by other global markets?
2. The realities of recycling reliability – how much material actually gets recycled?
3. The importance of material selection – which materials have the best environmental performance?
Transitioning the global economy
There is a global push to shift economies from a linear economy to a circular economy. In a linear economy, products are used once and discarded, while in a circular economy waste material is considered a valuable, re-usable resource. Circular economies could theoretically provide enough goods and services for the entire population by sustainably-sourcing natural materials and recycling waste materials into secondary resources. Waste material management is therefore a fundamental function to improve global sustainability. However, on a practical level this is often simplified down to a focus just on recycling. Recycling is not the be-all end-all for waste management and comes with its own challenges and risks.
How is recycling supposed to work?
The recycling process is straight-forward: recyclable waste materials are collected, processed and sold for use as a secondary material, reducing the amount of material that goes to landfill or incineration. This system should be less environmentally impactful than a throwaway system, but relies on three assumptions:
1. There will always be a demand and function for all recycled materials.
2. All recyclable materials are captured and successfully recycled.
3. Recyclable materials have lower environmental burdens than single-use materials.
The reality of recycling
Despite consistent development to waste management infrastructure, less than 20% of material is successfully recycled globally and there are several reasons for this.
Issue #1: Collection of materials
For both industrial waste and domestic waste, many countries are faced with the issue of missed capture – recyclable materials do not make it to recycling plants because they may not be recognised as recyclable by the consumer, or the opposite – materials which are not recyclable may be mixed with those that can, and create difficulties sorting the material.
Issue #2: Managing waste streams
Recyclable materials may not make it to processing plants because they are rejected by waste handling facilities due to the contamination of recycling streams. Contamination can be caused by mixing high concentrations of non-recyclable materials or food waste into the waste stream.
Issue #3: Economic viability
The processing costs for remediating contaminated recyclable material can actually outweigh the potential profits gained from recycling materials, so it’s not uncommon for contaminated recyclable waste loads to be diverted to landfill. The rate of rejected recycling can be dependent on local recycling policies and the waste separation methods employed. It can also depend on the demand for recycled material in the commodity markets. Recycling itself is a commodity business and follows annual value trends near identical to that of agriculture, metal and oil commodity prices. This can drastically affect how material is recycled – for instance, if oil prices drop below the prices for secondary recycled plastic, manufacturers are more likely to purchase virgin plastic products than they are recycled products, simply because they are cheaper and of a higher quality.
Issue #4: Unexpected material environmental performance
In some cases, products made of material which cannot be recycled still yield fewer environmental burdens than an identical product made of recyclable materials. This might be because the single-use product has a substantially smaller mass than the recyclable product, fewer burdens associated with the manufacture of the product rather than processing secondary material, or fewer material transport requirements. Life cycle assessment provides a comprehensive means of understanding these considerations and can be an invaluable tool for product design.
What does this mean for global circularity?
New products are increasingly designed with recycled components and greater consideration for the end of life processes to reduce the environmental burdens of a product from cradle to grave. However, this method of sustainable product development is dependent on the capabilities of waste management infrastructure and the recyclable product to have an improved environmental performance. Materials developed to be 100% recycled can still have greater burdens associated with them during their manufacture than single-use materials, so if they are not handled correctly at end of life then the environmental impact of a product designed to have fewer environmental burdens can actually end up more detrimental to the environment than a product designed for single-use and landfill disposal.
Finding the answer
The benefit of conducting a life cycle assessment for a product is that you can understand which stages of the product life cycle yield the greatest environmental impacts and explore ways to improve these impacts accordingly. Across a product life cycle, there are multiple options to improve a product’s environmental performance – not just attempting to recycle waste material at the end of life.
Solution #1: Light-weighting
A recyclable PET water bottle might weigh twice as much as a single-use cardboard-based water bottle, and therefore automatically have greater energy and material demands associated with its manufacture than the lighter product it is being compared to. However, if it were a similar mass to the lighter single-use product, it may turn out to have a far better environmental performance. Therefore, exploring ways to light-weight a product in the manufacturing stage can significantly improve its performance – potentially beyond that of the cardboard packaging option, and other competing products.
Solution #2: Extend product life
Recycled secondary materials are often of a lower quality than virgin materials, so it can be expected that the life expectancy for products made of recycled materials to be lower. You may be able to use a plastic bag 10 times before it degrades, but a paper bag only once or twice. In this case, there is a heavy reliance that the paper bag is effectively recycled, and if this is not the case then the manufacturing burdens of the product and poor product life may result in a worse environmental performance than the hardier product. These variables should all be considered when designing the lifetime of a product.
Solution #3: Effective eco-design
Arguably, the most important phase of a product life cycle is the design phase: the range of environmental impacts a material component can exert should be considered, as should related processes such as transportation, energy and water requirements. Product manufacturers and consumers should consider which environmental impacts are of greatest concern to them to help their material/product selection. For instance, the fertilizers associated with the cultivation of crops used for bio-materials can over-enrich soils with nutrients which often leach out into aquatic systems and severely damage ecosystems. This means bio-based material often performs poorly for eutrophication compared to fossil-based materials but will generally have a lower climate change impact from greenhouse gas emissions.
Defining the future for material management
Material recycling currently provides a fundamental means of managing waste and drives material circularity on a global scale. By ensuring there is a market for recycling, manufacturers will remain incentivised to invest in improving waste management infrastructure. This will move the efficiency of current recycling processes further towards the desired standard. The dependency of the recycling market on other commodity markets can be a drawback however, and to commit to a more circular economy manufacturers may still have to make decisions that are not always economically profitable.
There are many options out there to help reduce our impacts on the planet whose full potential have yet to be unlocked. A global circular economy has the potential to unlock $4.5 trillion growth, making it an enormous opportunity (Accenture, 2016)! I would therefore strongly recommend we get on board sooner rather than later!
Rosie Dodd is a Sustainability Consultant at thinkstep.