What are the environmental benefits of recycling?

Ask a dozen people their thoughts on recycling, and you’ll get a dozen answers. Some are enthusiastic about the benefits, others may be skeptical, and most will probably have mixed feelings. 

At TerraCycle, we understand the full range of opinions when it comes to recycling, and we’re the first to say that it isn’t the answer to the waste crisis. However, it’s a very important part of moving toward a circular economy. Here’s why.

Image of rubbish in landfill with birds flying around. Graphic of question mark in the sky.

Recycling reduces the need to extract virgin materials from the planet

The way our society currently produces the vast majority of goods is still by extracting virgin material from our planet. And we’re using natural resources at a truly unsustainable rate. There’s even a day to recognise when we overshoot the biological resources Earth regenerates in a year: “Earth Overshoot Day.” Last year, it fell on July 28.

Not only does this extraction deplete natural resources and disrupt ecosystems, but it also uses a lot of energy and often creates pollution, which only increases when the material is processed. When recycled material is used to make a product instead, natural resources and energy are conserved. For example, manufacturing with recycled aluminum cans uses 95 percent less energy than creating the same amount of aluminum with bauxite extracted from the Earth.

Recycling prevents rubbish from being landfilled or littered

Globally, our current system for disposing of most of our rubbish is sending it to landfills. This differs depending on where you live. For example, in Australia the recycling rate sits at around 60 percent while in the US only 32 percent of rubbish is recycled. This “out of sight, out of mind” approach is not a good long-term solution for the planet’s health—or the health of the beings living on it.

Landfills are not designed to break down and decompose materials. Rubbish is tightly compacted and then buried in the earth. As organic materials break down in this oxygen-poor  (aka ‘anaerobic’) environment, they release methane, which is over 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. 

This methane can be continually produced for however long it takes for the materials to decompose, which can be hundreds of years, and is a primary contributor to global warming. It’s still unknown exactly how long it takes for plastics to break down, but it’s predicted that a plastic bottle can take up to 450 years to decompose. Other plastic items could take 1,000 years or more to break down into microplastics, which persist in the environment indefinitely. Then there’s compostable and biodegradable items, which aren’t designed to break down in landfills. They either persist indefinitely or, because of the lack of oxygen, break down anaerobically and release methane.

As landfills break down, they produce “leachate,” which is a liquid that is then pumped out of landfills and treated as hazardous waste. However, many landfills leak leachate, which seeps into the ground and can flow into our waterways. Studies have found that leachate can contain microplastics, which ultimately end up in the food and water consumed by humans and animals. 

Recycling reuses valuable materials

Recycling creates new items from material that’s already in circulation. When something goes directly to landfills or is incinerated, we waste all of the natural resources, energy, and material used to create it. When we recycle, we use material to its fullest potential and conserve natural resources at the same time. This will become especially important as we continue to overshoot the Earth’s resources. 

While recycling is an imperfect solution, it is a major improvement over sending rubbish to landfills or incinerating it. Third-party-verified life cycle assessments (LCAs) show that our recycling models have a lower environmental impact than traditional solutions across eight major categories (including global warming). On average, our models are forty-five percent better for the planet. 

Ultimately, recycling is one of many ways we can eliminate waste and invest in the planet. Reducing and reusing come first. And you can feel confident that you’re helping the planet when you recycle items through TerraCycle’s free recycling programs and Zero Waste Boxes.

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