The industrial revolution has a lot of answer for.
It bought us prosperity, a better quality of life, doubled our life expectancy, led to improved work conditions, and helped to reduce infection and disease.
It created a market for goods and evolved our way of living, from working the land for only what we need; to extracting our natural resources for financial gain.
In less than 200 years, we evolved from population developed through organic learning, to entitled consumers fossil-fueled by mechanical processes.
And now, these developments have almost removed humans entirely from the production line. The effort and care that was once required, has been replaced with the touch of a button.
Mass consumerism enables economies to thrive and grow with an increase in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) equal to the prosperity of a nation.
As GDP grows, so does our waste, to the detriment of our natural world.
Our oceans are full of plastic, lands polluted with buried waste, and air filled with ash and poisonous gas.
And as we stand on the precipice of the next evolutionary change to our planet, what happens next is entirely up to us.
The world is currently on a trajectory where waste generation will triple population growth by 2050.1.
How did we get here?
Prior to the invention of mechanical production, human creation and consumption was organic.
Industry and factories didn’t exist.
We learnt how to create from our families and communities, everything had a purpose, was built to last, and reused with little to no waste.
We created by hand, investing time, energy, and effort while imparting value and meaning.
Enter the steam engine and we can now pump and transport water over long distances, creating energy, and power from heat.
Women and children leave the home to work in factories, while men fight wars for ownership, power, and control over land and technologies.
Technologies that convert crude oil into LPG, petrol, gasoline, kerosine and diesel oil that power transportation to reduce our natural resources down to their most basic forms and recreated into something new.
Machinery that pumps oil, removes coal, rock and iron ore from the ground, bauxite from the sea and trees from the forest, then transport it into manufacturing and on to the consumer.
Goods are created at high speed with huge inputs of energy, fuelling an economic boom based around consumerism and credit and enabling populations to multiply 10-fold.
Time, effort, and human contribution has been replaced with Amazon 1-click delivery and a product life cycle of bearly 6 months.
What a waste
Every year consumers generate 2.12 billion tonnes of waste.
The equivalent of 5025 fully loaded 747 planes.
We throw away 884 million tonnes of food and green matter, discard more than 30% of re-usable materials and pollute recycling streams with wishful thinking.
Over 90% of consumer products can be recycled, yet less than 20% are.
Instead they end up in open dumps, landfills, and incinerators.
Based on the volume of waste, its composition, and disposal methods, it is estimated that household waste and treatment generates 1.6 billion tonnes of CO2 every year.
Whilst this is only 5% of current global emissions when we consider the process through which it exists: deforestation, excavation and mining, transportation, processing, manufacturing, development, branding and sales, and finally disposal.
And every time we put something into the general trash that could have been reused, repurposed, or recycled, we start this process all over again.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
By being intentional with our actions, we can reduce waste and develop a circular economy that works in unity with our environment, rather than against is.
While most of us think of recycling as the coloured bins on our doorstep, or the communal bins down the street.
Recycling is so much more than this.
Recycling is giving our trees, minerals, metals and plastics another chance at life by returning them back to the manufacturer to be reinvented into something new.
Every time a product is successfully recycled, it drastically reduces the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by:
- using less energy compared to new raw materials,
- reducing the excavation and transportation of natural resources, and
- improving the management of contaminated waste
Here’s what the product life cycle could look like in a perfect world where everything is recycled.
Successful recycling creates a circular process, as in nature where little goes to waste and everything contributes to something new.
While there is still an environmental cost of CO2 released through the process of recycling, the amount of energy saved compared to creating new is up to 94% for some raw materials.
Successful recycling is not the only charge needed to create a circular economy, but it is the first step all of us can take easily at home.
So why is only 19% of our waste being recycled?
Recycling a broken system
Efficient recycling comes down to effective waste management and requires infrastructure and funding.
Waste management is typically the single largest budgetary requirement for local municipalities, making up to 20% of the total budget with 10% dedicated solely to transportation.
Currently only high and some upper-middle-income countries can afford to recycle.
Waste management is highly efficient with over 90% of municipal waste collected and disposed of in a decreasing number of landfills, in favour of incineration with energy conversion.
High-income countries make up only 16% of the population, yet they create 34% of the total waste (90% of which could have been recycled)
By comparison, waste management exists in less than 40% of low-income countries with 93% in open dumps, often situated next to the poorest communities who suffer from poor hygiene and disease.
In-country GDP also directly correlates with the composition of waste streams. With high-income countries producing more dry waste and low income, more food, and green waste.
The increased food and green waste in developing countries is a direct result of a lack of technology from the farm and the table, such as refrigerated trucks and insulated storage.
It is estimated that the amount of waste in low-income countries, such as Sub-Saharan Africa, will triple in the next 30 years.1.
If waste continues to be poorly managed in these countries, we can expect CO2 emissions for waste disposal to increase to 2.6 billion tonnes by 2050.
Now is the time for all of us to raise our recycling game and set a standard for the future of manufacturing through our purchasing choices to ensure this doesn’t happen.
High-income waste management
Waste management facilities in high-income countries are public entities funded by the Government through a percentage of taxpayers’ fees based on the local population.
They are uniquely different yet all have the same goal: to collect and dispose of waste and recycling in the most efficient way possible, so as to remain commercially viable.
Waste management facilities do not sort our black bag rubbish and everything that goes into a general waste disposal bin meets only one of two ends – landfill or incineration.
And while incineration often contributes to energy for the region – it means ‘end of life’ for our natural resources and increasing outputs of CO2 and methane gas.
When items make it into recycling bins an elaborate system of machinery sorts and bundles products up for sale and re-purposing.
Conveyor belt after conveyor belt carries recyclable products past optical identifiers, magnets, and various shaped plates, using gravity and air pressure to get everything to the right place.
Recycling works as long as the correct items make it into the recycling bin.
If you want to totally nerd out on this, check out this video:
As an easy guide, think of it this way:
Anything that is easily melted down, such as glass, metal or alumium can be used over and over again with next to no loss in quality. And re-melting products uses significantly less water and energy than creating from new.
Paper is shredded, soaked and mulched to create recycled paper, but with each cycle it loses less and less quality, so it can never be as good as it was before and eventually will be come waste.
Plastic the most complex, as I’m sure you all know, due to the fact it comes in no less than 7 different forms, all created using different methods and chemicals.
For example, PET 1 plastic, i.e. soda bottles, can be melted down into plastic pellets and reshaped into something new, whereas PET 3 plastic contains hydrochloric acid so must be ground down into a powder to avoid poisoning people.
With each subsequent cycle, plastic becomes weaker and less useful until it becomes the thin plastic films that fill our waste bins, or the microplastics polluting our oceans.
“the practice of tossing questionable items in the recycling bin, hoping they can somehow be recycled.”
One of the biggest issues in recycling is wish cycling – putting items into the recycling stream that we wish, or hope can be recycled but actually can’t.
These items create a huge issue for waste management plants as they clog up machinery, stopping the sorting process and putting facility workers at risk.
They also get into the wrong recycling streams contaminating whole batches and increasing transportation and management costs.
The biggest offenders are:
- Plastic bags and thin plastic packaging or films
- Pouches made of mixed materials – usually plastic and aluminum
- Shredded paper – as the small size makes it difficult to sort
- Drinking glasses, vases or ceramics
- Electronics and batteries
- Cables and hoses
- Loose bottle caps
- Styrofoam and polystyrene
None of the above items should ever be put into your household recycling or anything less than 2mm in diameter as it is impossible for machines to identify and sort.
A universal guide to recycling
On the face of it, recycling seems simple, however, it can be quite complex.
Every region has its own independently managed facility with varying capabilities based on space and funding and clear communication is often poor.
However, when we consider the method by which things are re-purposed, the basic guidelines become universal.
So here is my ‘easy’ guide to household recycling.
Glass: get it in the recycling bin ASAP!
100% of all bottles, jars, and perfume bottles can be recycled. Clear glass is the easiest so where possible buy plain, clear glass packaging.
Each round of glass recycling saves between 10-15% of the energy required to create new.
Dishes, vases, or table glass should be wrapped and disposed of in your household waste.
In 2019, France had to purchase an additional 50,000 tonnes of glass to meet production requirements while 1 out of every 10 bottles is currently not being recycled.
Paper & Cardboard: all except if soiled with food, glitter or foil
85% paper and cardboard can be recycled including pizza boxes, tetra paks, and envelopes with windows.
Anything covered in contaminants such as glitter and foil or containing food or soiled waste goes into your household bin.
While most curbside programs will accept large cardboard boxes, they fill up communal bins increasing waste and transport costs. Compact them down to their smallest size and remove any tape or staples.
Alternatively. take them directly to your local waste management facility or find a way to re-use it – give it to someone whose moving, start a permaculture garden, protect garden beds through cold winters or build a fort!
Metal, Steel & Aluminium: recycle all of it, including tin foil
All metal and steel can be recycled and each round of recycling saves 75% of the energy required to make from new.
Make sure those tin cans, aerosols, and even tinfoil make it into your recycling – compress loose bits of foil into tennis ball-sized balls.
Recycling aluminium, is straightforward, profitable and environmentally sound: making a can from recycled aluminium reduces its carbon footprint by up to 95%.
Plastics: buy and recycle PET 1 & HDPE plastics only
While virtually all plastics can be recycled, many aren’t because the process is expensive, complicated and the resulting product is of lower quality than what you put in.
Plastic recycling facilities are extremely specialised and most countries still don’t have the capacity of process the amount of plastic waste we produce.
For this reason, only PET 1 and HDPE (also called PEHD) products should go into your recycling unless specified by your area recycling centre.
In the UK, some (but not all) recycling centres can take PP 5 & PS 6.
All other products, must go in your household bin or ideally, not purchased at all. Choosing not to buy a product because of its packaging, sends a clear message to the manufacturer.
This typically includes single-use containers, plastic bags, cling film, plastic packaging, food wrappers, and chip packets.
A good way to test if a plastic product can be recycled? If it can be screwed up in your hand, it definitely can’t and it must go in your household bin
Recycling 1 tonne of PET plastic saves 832L of crude oil, 1 tonne of HDPE plastic saves 637L of crude oil, 1.5M3 of water and 12MW of energy.
Wage war on plastics
Plastic is one of the worst environmental incidences of our time.
Since the 1950s over 7.8 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced and over half of it is still on our planet.
Approximately 30% or 2500Mt of plastic is currently still in use. Of the 6300Mt of new and recycled plastic waste that remains, 800Mt (12%) has been incinerated and 600Mt recycled – only 10% of this more than once.
Until the 1980’s 100% of this plastic waste was discarded in landfills, rivers, oceans, and waterways, from the 1980s until 2018 all low-grade plastics were purchased and recycled in China.
If you want to understand more about this issue, I highly recommend watching this film.
Despite the issues with plastics use, there is cause for optimism: in December 2018, the UK government published a comprehensive new waste strategy, including a tax on plastic packaging containing less than 30% recycled material; a simplified labelling system; and means to force companies to take responsibility for the plastic packaging they produce
186 countries have passed measures to track and control the export of plastic waste to developing countries, while more than 350 companies have signed a global commitment to eliminate the use of single-use plastics by 2025.
While high-income countries account for only 16% of the population, we currently generate 34%, or 683 million tonnes of waste every year.
By improving our recycling and waste management practices, we can preserve large quantities of natural resources, reduce deforestation and through our purchasing choices, send a clear message to manufacturers that we want change.
Stop mindlessly putting things in the bin and for each item, consider what impact it will have on the world and what you can do differently.
Perhaps it means not buying a product, making it at home yourself, finding an alternative or looking for a way you can re-use non-recyclable items.
If you are interested in seeing how much energy you can save through recycling, check out this tool.
Thank you for reading my blog. My goal is to explain common environmental issues in the easiest way possible with tangible actions for improvement.
If you have any ideas or topics you want researched, let me know. I’ve love to know what matters to you.
If my blog moves you to action, please share it with your friends so we can work on this together.
Coming up next: product waste – what happens to the rest of our waste. A look at electronics, textiles and consumables not covered under general household waste.
- Kaza, Silpa; Yao, Lisa C.; Bhada-Tata, Perinaz; Van Woerden, Frank. 2018. What a Waste 2.0 : A Global Snapshot of Solid Waste Management to 2050. Urban Development;. Washington, DC: World Bank.
- Geyer, Roland; Jambeck, Jenna R.; Law, Kara Lavendar. 19 July 2017. Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Science Advances, Vol 2. no.7, e1700782. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1700782.
- IEA (2019), World Energy Outlook 2019, IEA, Paris https://www.iea.org/reports/world-energy-outlook-2019
- Diana Ivanova, Konstantin StadlerKjartan Steen‐OlsenRichard WoodGibran VitaArnold TukkerEdgar G. Hertwich (2016) Environmental Impact Assessment of Household Consumption
- Roland Geyer, Jenner Jambeck, Kara Lavendar Law. Science Advances: Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made.