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Recycling Explained

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Why Recycling is not the answer!

“After forty years of trying, we still have not been able to make recycling work”, points out Ellen MacArthur, the yachtsman who went onto lunch her own environmental group. She explains that a we have been focusing on the wrong thing, making an effort to do more recycling is not going to solve the issue of waste. We need a systemic change, moving away from the pattern of linear consumption to a more circular economy which reuses rather than consumes.

Recycling was often causing the majority of us to create more waste!

  • Since the introduction of kerbside recycling in the 1980’s, recycling has been promoted as the answer to humanities increasing amount of waste. This solution gave meaning to many of us as it felt like an achievable way to help the planet even if we were still living a wasteful lifestyle.
  • In 2017 that rug was pulled from beneath us as China closed its doors to imports of global ‘recyclable material,’ throwing the entire recycling industry into question. If recycling was so great, then why were does it needed to be exported to other countries? The answer is that we were using Asia as a dumping ground for our ‘recyclable goods’.

Recycling uses Precious Energy and Water. 

  • Even the collection process itself involves a multitude of vehicles run on fossil fuels, thus already contributing to pollution.
  • Not to mention the fact that oftentimes the packaging isn’t even needed in the first place. Take for example fruit and veg wrapped in cellophane!
  • A vast amount of water is needed to treat materials, producing waste water full of contaminants which is then dumped untreated, polluting local waterways.
  • Energy is needed to sort, clean and then heat the materials breaking it down into ‘usable’ scraps. More harmful chemicals are released during this process due to additives to the materials or the chemicals used in the ‘cleaning’ process.
  • The end material is then either sold on to manufacturing companies as ‘feedstock materials’ for its  products or sometimes shipped on illegally to be dumped in landfill.
  • It is often said that making products form virgin materials is less energy intensive and less polluting than recycling a product.
  • Electronic waste is by far the most toxic to process as it contains a range of harmful substances including heavy metals such as lead. However, they still find their way into into countries leat able to deal with it safely, contributing to health risks from contamination.

Often what we place in our Green bins is not actually recyclable!

A recent publication by MyWaste Ireland not only explained what can be recycled but also highlighted how much of our waste cannot be recycled. Such items included black pastic, foil lined wrappers, soft plastic packaging, pvc, etc. I for one was shocked!

I used to think that these symbols meant something was recyclable, unfortunately I was wrong. The first symbol on a product means that the manufacturer or retailer is a member of Repak, nothing more. The second series of symbols indicates which resin the plastic item is made from but because plastic products can be made using different processes you can’t assume that two products made from the same resin type can be recycled together.

Very little ‘recyclable materials’ even get to be recycled!

  • The industry of waste collection has become a profit making business and so materials are being bought and sold cross country without checking that the importers can actually recycle that quantity. Some of what is being traded is contaminated or composed of mixed materials making them impossible to recycle. A lack of strict regulation within the industry has led to mass corruption, resulting in the dumping of hazardous materials in developing countries.
  • The waste industry is a profit-making business, which inevitably means that if it becomes too costly to recycle something the industry will stop recycling it. Check Recycle Ireland to see what can and can’t be recycled from your household collection.

Other options beyond Green Bins; TerraCycles Packaging Recycling Systems

A company called Terracycle has been established in an attempt to eliminate the idea of waste by ‘recycling the “non recycling”. Whether it’s coffee capsules from your home, pens from a school, or plastic gloves from a manufacturing facility, TerraCycle can collect and recycle almost any form of waste. They also partner with individual collectors as well as major consumer product companies, retailers, manufacturers, municipalities, and small businesses across 20 different countries. They have succeeded in diverting millions of pounds of waste from landfills and incinerators each month.

Some of the recycling programmes can also allow participants to raise funds for charitable causes. By signing up for Terracycle points cash can be earned for a charity or community organisation by collecting and dropping of partnered products involved in the programme. For example used Ella Kitchen Food Pouches at the Central Remedial Clinic in Dublin, or alternatively they can be dropped into the Dublin Food Co-op in Dublin 8 and Small changes in Drumcondra collects used crisp packets. See Terracycles locations in Ireland to se what else can be collected where or start your own collecting!


So, what’s the solution?

  • A more circular economy where resources are reused instead of consumed would contribute to less being produced globally. This would require better packaging and product design focusing on durability and recyclability.
  • ‘Zero Waste Living’, refilling reusable containers from bulk supply stores.
  • Looking at the past! Yes that’s right, looking at our grandparents generation! They didn’t have single use items and yet they thrived, not just ‘survived’!