“Recycle” comes, etymologically speaking, from the Greek word kýklos, which means “orbit or circle,” and by extension, “ordered repetition or recurrence of phenomena.” In Latin, the term becomes cyclus-cycli, adding the prefix: “Re.” (which means repetition). Therefore, the original meaning of the verb “recycle” is “to circulate something or put it back into orbit” (waste becomes resource).
The garbage or waste recycling has been practiced for years, if not centuries or millennia: thousands of years ago, the metal was repeatedly melted repeatedly to forge new objects or products, such as weapons or tools. It is even said that the broken bronze pieces of the Colossus of Rhodes (one of the seven wonders of the Ancient World) were recycled as scrap metal.
Waste recycling is a millennial practice
So far, we have seen covered the vast amount of waste which is generated on different scales, and how traditional waste treatments, whether be they landfill or incineration, continue to have an effect on the environment (pollution and climate change) and how, on the other hand, they are not the global solution to the waste problem.
Considering that most of the waste could be recycled, the next alternative could be to RECYCLE the waste. When I refer to recycling, I do soit in a broad sense, that is: recycling waste, reusing it, composting it, and also reducing the amount of waste that we generate (prevention).
The waste recycling process includes the sub-processes of separation, collection, and waste treatment to obtain materials that can be used to make new products.
An alternative title for this blog could have been: could be named “Why is it’s important to reduce waste.” However, if we can only recycle 40% of the waste (by collecting it separately into containers), growing, and not the entire whole population is not collaborating, how can we ask the people who not only to separate their waste into different containers but also to avoid generating waste in the first place? Therefore, let’s start by explaining the basic notions about recycling and explaining why it’ is so important to do it so, although I must reiterate that it’ is preferable to reduce the amount of waste that we generate.
The initial 3R strategy (reduce, reuse and recycle) has evolved towards a modern waste management system that establishes guideline principles or a waste hierarchy (European Union) to know find out what to do with waste:
What to do with the waste?
Reduce, reuse, recycle, incinerate and, as a last resort, send to landfill
The first option in waste management is reduction (prevention). The aim here is to avoid generating waste in the first place, and not only in terms of the quantity but also its level of danger or toxicity. If said generation can’t be prevented, the second step in the strategy is to reuse (or prepare for reuse) the waste that we generate, such as furniture, clothing, appliances, etc. If neither of the first two steps is possible, waste should be recycled, as materials, to obtain new objects. If recycling is not feasible, then the waste must be recovered, at least, for example through energy recovery, which includes incineration. The last, least desirable step, and only when the previous options are impossible, is to send the waste to landfill.
Under all circumstances, waste recycling ranks above the alternatives of incineration and landfill. The level of energy needed to make productsis higher than the energy that can be extracted from the waste material by means of incineration. Also, concerning climate change, recycling is better than incinerating.
The waste management model that generates the least amount of greenhouse gas emissions is municipal waste separation at the origin –at home– enabling recycling (and compost), combined with general waste treatment in Ecoparks (to treat the biodegradable waste fraction which is not separated).
Recycling waste is better than sending it to landfill or for incineration
One must take into account that the activity itself and the recycling industry also have impacts on the environment (waste transport, recycling facilities operation), although in most cases the effects avoided are more significant than those generated by the activity of recycling.
Waste separation at home (at the origin), into materials or fractions, is important in order to ensure the maximum quality of the recycled materials since it helps to increase their value and the number of products that can be made.
Want to know more?
i The book Stop garbage. The truth about recycling, Alex Pascual, February 2019
. “The truth about recycling,” The Economist, 7 July 2007
. Directive 2008/98/CE European Parliament, about Waste Management, 19 November 2008.
. “Incineration and the future of waste management policies,” Official Association of Industrial Engineers of Catalonia, March 2009
. Dominic Hogg. op.cit
. “Waste management options and climate change,” European Commission, AEA Technology
. “Environment and Europe: Estate and perspectives” European Environment Agency, 2010