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Why You Should Be Recycling

Updated on June 22, 2017

We hear a lot these days about the damage that our household and office garbage is doing to the planet and to the environment. Absolute mountains of waste (literally) are being thrown out by the world’s population each day. To take one example, in the UK alone, 29.1 million tons of waste is sent to the landfills. And when you think that this is a lot of weight, just think of the amount of space that all this rubbish takes up.

What’s the big deal? What’s so bad about landfills? Well, a number of things. Firstly, landfills take up a lot of land that could be used productively. Often, wilderness areas are transformed to rubbish dumps results in destruction of habitat for wildlife and birds (to be fair, the example that these photos were taken from was a landfill that was carefully planned to minimize environmental and aesthetic impact, including loss of habitat to local wildlife, including a reforestation project.) Landfills also leach toxic liquids into the soil and if the waste in a landfill is burned, this releases all sorts of pollution and fumes into the atmosphere. If the waste in the landfill just sits there, it generates “landfill gas,” which is a greenhouse gas that’s even worse than carbon dioxide.

Quite obviously, something must be done to reduce the amount of rubbish that people throw away before there’s no space left. Recycling is one of these ways – one of the “three R’s” of waste management (the other two R’s are Reusing and Reducing).

The other reason why we should recycle all we can is because many of the things we just throw away are made from non-renewable resources. In this world, there is only so much iron and steel, and only so much aluminum or other metals. Once it’s used up, that’s it. Besides, it takes more energy to turn raw ingredients into a product than it does to recycle something.

What is and isn’t recycling?

Recycling refers to taking a used item that would otherwise be thrown away and reducing it to a “raw” state and using this to make something new. This is different from merely re-using an item while keeping it in the same form. The grey area between the two is when something is cut up slightly and used to make something else without reducing it to a “raw” state (e.g. cutting up an old CD to make jewelry).

To make things clear, here are some examples of ways people go about reducing waste, some of which involve recycling and some of which involve reusing.
• Cutting up an empty bottle to use it as a scoop for flour or sugar: re-using.
• Collecting used staples and steel paperclips and taking them to the scrap metal yard to be melted down: recycling.
• Using old aluminum saucepans to be melted down for making aircraft: recycling.
• Cutting up an old pair of jeans to make patches: reusing (although this one’s debatable).
• Using PET and soft drink bottles to make the fibres used to make polar fleece: recycling.
• Using the blank back of a printout or letter to take telephone messages or draw pictures: reusing.
• Putting kitchen waste into a compost heap so it becomes fertilizer for the garden: recycling.
• Collecting old glass jars and using them for home preserves: reusing.
• Shredding old newspapers and pulping them to make cardboard: recycling.
• Using old ice cream containers to hold children’s crayons and felt tip pens: reusing.

What can be recycled?

The short answer to this question is that nearly anything can be recycled, as long as you have the technology to do it! However, in reality, some things are easier to recycle than others. For example, some types of plastic do not stand up well to being melted down and re-used. Other items can be contaminated, rendering them useless for recycling purposes.

But here are some common examples of how various items are recycled.
• Kitchen waste, leaves, lawn clippings and weeds can be recycled into fertilizer for the garden by composting.
• PET bottles can be melted down to make crates or to be made into fibers for making polar fleece.
• Glass can be crushed to cullet, which is used for sandblasting ships’ hulls to clean them.
• Paper and cardboard are pulped and made into new sheets of paper or cardboard.
• Old clothes are reduced to fibers, which is used for insulation and filling out upholstery.

One surprising way that many waste materials are used is in road surfacing. The stone and gravel used for the lower levels of road surfacing is a non-renewable resource, so other materials are used (after passing various tests for environmental safety as well as how well they perform) instead of fresh rock and gravel.

Many town councils have schemes to allow ratepayers to recycle various items. These items can be put out for collection at the curbside in much the same way as other garbage is, or else they can be collected in large bins, skips and “bottle banks” ready to be taken to be recycled. Another option is to have a recycling depot near the local tip where people bringing their rubbish in to dump can sort and drop off recyclable items – often with a financial incentive to do so. Sometimes, the items will be reused (like old clothes, which are sent to thrift stores, or bottles, which can be washed and reused).

Let’s take my local town council as an example. It has facilities to recycle the following items:
• Organic rubbish (kitchen waste and garden waste, including leaves and lawn clippings)
• Plastics (mostly plastic bottles and containers, plus their lids, but also includes supermarket plastic bags)
• Paper and cardboard, including glossy magazines and Tetra-Pak cartons
• Glass bottles of all colors (they don’t take broken glass, light bulbs or window glass, though)
• Steel cans
• Aluminum cans, including aerosol cans

Your town may be different. In some places, it is easy to find both council-run and commercial scrap metal yards that take all types of clean used metal, including aluminum foil and old used steel staples. Other towns have facilities to recycle used oil from automobile engines (it can be cleaned and then re-used, so this may be an example of re-using rather than recycling), computer equipment, cellphones and more.

Recycling at home

The main form of recycling that the everyday householder can do at home is composting. All your kitchen waste and garden waste (including lawn clippings, leaves and weeds) can be put into a compost heap to be turned into fertilizer for your garden. Other items that can be added into a compost heap are kitty litter, sawdust, straw used as pet bedding; shredded papers and shredded and mildewed clothing made from natural fibers, although some of these things take longer to rot down than other things.

Some other ideas for at-home recycling include:
• Making papier-mâché ornaments. To do this, you shred old papers and soak them before turning them to pulp (using an eggbeater or a cake mixer helps). Then mix a paste of hot water and white flour, and add this to the paper pulp. Then sculpt your creation! Allow it to dry thoroughly before painting.
• Making your own paper. This is like making papier-mâché but requires a bit more equipment.
• Shredding old clothing and using the resulting fluff and fiber to stuff soft toys or cushions.

However, reusing items is much easier to do at home. All it takes is a bit of imagination to find ways to use or reuse old household goods. Often, old used items have great potential for craft activities, for adults and for children.

But don’t forget the old adage that “one person’s trash is another person’s treasure.” Often, the best way to reuse an item is to give it away for another person to reuse. For example, you may not know what to do with that old, scratched pair of prescription glasses or reading glasses, but somewhere in a developing country is a person with the same requirements as you who would do anything to get them – and some charity organizations collect old spectacles for poorer nations. Schools can often make good use of old computer equipment, especially in under-resourced areas. Women’s refuges and night shelters for the homeless always appreciate things like blankets, clothes, books and children’s toys. This is a far better thing to do with your old unwanted items than just chucking them in the nearest tip and leaving them to rot (or not rot, as the case may be – some things aren’t biodegradable).

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