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Reduce, Reuse, Recycle…Then What?

This popular alliterated phrase is increasingly prevalent in a world that is producing more than it has ever before. Yet people generally hate recycling; even though it should spark altruistic feelings for our planet (something so natural and meaningful), it undoubtedly conjures some sense of tediousness and irrelevance to ‘our’ lives. However, even though recycling has been criticised as perhaps being rather detrimental, studies do show instead that whilst some materials benefit only marginally from being recycled, others do so significantly.

But what happens to the materials for which we go out of our way to put in the ‘recycling’ bin? It is not as straight forward as you might assume. Firstly, it is necessary to understand how we manage our recycling, as there are good reasons suggested for both commingled (single-stream) and separated recycling. This instantly creates one challenge. Paper itself can be further separated as well though; the better the quality of the paper, the better the recycled products it can be used to make. The same is true for plastics, although this is where the real problem comes in – in addition to their separation, plastics are not easily recycled. Generally, they are not biodegradable, and can last up to 500 years in the environment without breaking down and polluting the oceans. However, metal and glass can be very effectively recycled (steel and general glass being simply melted down) and aluminium cans are some of the easiest to recycle and environmentally harmful to produce; this is why they are such a good material to recycle. 

Whilst recycling is probably the most interesting, reducing and reusing cannot be over-emphasised. They can make as much of a difference even when they are basically self-explanatory. In addition to cutting down on waste, if you wanted to have a bigger impact you could of course make your own compost, which can reduce up to half of your kitchen and garden waste.

The Future of Recycling

Newer, brighter and incentivising ways of recycling in our capitalist world seem to be the best way forward. A great technique employed by Norway is challenging our conventional ways of recycling. Norway now recycle their plastic bottles by charging a small deposit (equivalent to 10/25 pence depending on the size of the bottle). This Deposit Return Scheme is claimed to be the most effective, with 96% of bottles being returned for recycling. It is said to be so successful that the UK is likely to implement this scheme too.

Ultimately, we are still looking for more advanced technology to separate materials quickly and efficiently. Considering the level of progress in the last couple of decades, it is hard to envisage what kind of recycling we may have soon. Transport is hoping for a big change, with volatility and seasonality being concerns for efficiency, although with self-driving cars (not to mention electric) potentially taking off we could see a cut in environmental and capital costs. A bit further ahead, the possibility of ‘single-stream systems’ doing all the work for us is not as obscene as one might think.

Hopefully, more sustainable energies will see the light of day to save us from producing more waste and relieving some pressure off recycling. It is hoped that fracking is only a bridge that gives us time to fully develop more sustainable energies, nuclear being a key energy source deserving at least more attention and testing. In addition to this, solar panelling is up and coming, something Tesla are pushing forward. All hail Elon Musk.

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