We’ve all heard of the Three Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.
As a slogan, it’s about perfect—it is short, can’t be misunderstood, and has the pleasant ring of alliteration.
To reduce is to cut down on what is produced and what we consume.
To reuse is to find ways to repurpose items which otherwise are designed to be discarded.
To recycle is to submit items to be broken down into base materials and converted into future products.
Though this catchy phrase makes an easy-to-live-by rule, it only makes us question further. So, in this guide, we’ll look at ways recycling helps the environment. Shortly after, we’ll discuss common materials you can separate and recycle, as well as why those materials are important to recycle.
Let’s jump right in!
How Does Recycling Help the Environment?
Recycling is one of the best ways to fight climate change.
Here are a few ways recycling helps the environment and fight climate change:
1. Recycling Conserves Resources
When we recycle plastic, we reduce the need for more plastic to be manufactured. By recycling paper, we do our part to lessen deforestation and save trees from being cut down. Separating cans and other metals helps to cut down on damaging mining.
2. Recycling Saves Energy
It takes much more energy to create industrial-grade materials from scratch than it does just to reform old materials and reuse them. For example, it is estimated that “recycling aluminum saves 90% to 95% of the energy needed to make aluminum from bauxite ore.”
3. Recycling Protects the Environment
When we cut down on the amount of new materials we need to extract from the earth, whether through farming, mining, logging, etc., we protect vulnerable ecosystems and wildlife from harm or eradication and allow them to exist for generations to come. Recycling materials emits way less greenhouse gases into the environment than primary production.
According to the Inventory of Average Greenhouse Gas Emissions for Denmark, Norway and Sweden, here are the differences in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from primary production vs. production from recycling:
|Material||New Production GHGs||Recycling Production GHGs||Difference|
|Organic Waste Composting||0.07||0.05||27%|
* Unit used is kg CO2-equivalent/kg material.
4. Recycling Slows the Spread of Landfills
In the United States alone, there are 2,000 active landfills. This doesn’t account for the many that have been closed due to reaching capacity, or the future landfills that’ll have to be created when the active landfills become landfull.
5. Recycling Creates Jobs
A study by Friends of the Earth determined that reaching a 70% home recycle rate would create 51,400 jobs in the United Kingdom alone. In the US, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that reaching a 75% recycling rate nationwide would create 1.5 million new jobs.
6. Recycling Supports the SDGs
Our future and the future of all generations after us depend on sustainable production and consumption. As such, recycling is one of the best ways to support the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
What Should Be Recycled?
So, we’ve covered some top ways on how recycling helps the environment.
Here are the most common materials to recycle and how to go about it:
Plastics are the absolute worst.
Your flimsy plastic grocery bag? It takes 10–20 years to decompose.
That single-use water bottle you bought? It can take up to 450 years to break down in a landfill.
Other, more durable plastics? Up to 1,000 years!
Plastics are difficult for the environment, sure, but unfortunately they are difficult to recycle, as well. Not all plastics can be recycled, first of all. Then, there are different types of plastics which require varying processes and considerations.
The Resin Identification Coding System (RIC) separates plastics into seven different types. These seven types of plastic are:
- Polyethylene terephthalate (PETE or PET)
- High-density polyethylene (HDPE or PE-HD)
- Polyvinyl chloride (PVC or just V)
- Low-density polyethylene & Linear low-density polyethylene (LDPE & PE-LD)
- Polypropylene (PP)
- Polystyrene (PS)
- Other plastics (OTHER or O)
The number above also corresponds to the recycling number of a plastic, which you can most often find on the bottom of the item, along with an abbreviation (in parentheses above).
When you recycle plastics, you cut down on the long degradation time, while helping to make sustainable new products. According to Weill Cornell Medicine, “recycled plastic bottles are used to make carpet, clothing and even auto parts.”
Paper products are relatively simple to recycle.
Depending on your country, city, and district regulations, you may separate all paper together, or separate simple paper products from plastic-coated paper products, such as a Starbucks cup or orange juice carton. In the latter case, this is because it takes special chemicals and an extra step to remove the glue, plastic, and other residue from the paper in order to reuse it.
Glass is just about the longest-lasting man-made material, taking up to 1 million years to degrade in the environment!
If that’s not enough reason to recycle your glass bottles, there’s also the sand loss. Sand is the key ingredient in most glass, but the supplies are dwindling. Yes, believe it or not, sand is not as infinite as you might imagine—in fact, scientists are saying we’re facing a growing sand shortage, some going as far to call it a sand crisis.
The good news is that it’s one of the easier materials to recycle. First, a treatment plant sorts them by colors. Then, they give them a wash and remove stickers and other impurities. Finally, they melt down crushed glass pieces and shape them into new bottles and jars ready for us to purchase again.
Metals must be mined from the earth, which damages the areas and environments those mines are dug.
Recycling metals can be tricky, as there are dozens of metals. However, the good news for the average person is that most metals can be recycled together, as recycling plants sort them into their respective categories.
5. Organic Materials, Food & Compost
Organic waste such as food is the most biodegradable of the lot. The best way to recycle your own organic waste is to start composting it. Compost is organic material that has broken down, and it may appear to you as rich, dark soil.
Making compost is simple, and all you need is the passage of time. Then, when you’ve transformed past eggshells and orange peels into nutrient-rich dirt, use it for planting, gardening, or dump it in a public park (check your local laws first!). In some cities, such as New York, brown bins for organic waste are available, since there’s not much room to dispose of compost you create.
Known as E-waste (short for electronic waste), this includes all discarded electronic items, whether broken, unwanted, or at the end of their working lives.
The hard part of recycling electronics comes down to their constituent parts—there are dozens of gadgets and gizmos on the average circuit board, made out of a variety of metals, epoxy, glass, and other materials.
However, the good news is that almost all of the components can be reused. According to the EPA, “for every million cell phones we recycle, 35 thousand pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold and 33 pounds of palladium can be recovered.”
To recycle your used electronics, there are often bins at large retailers, such as Best Buy or Staples, where you can donate.
Batteries require special consideration when discarding them, as they contain toxic chemicals and heavy metals which shouldn’t decompose at your average landfill. Though there’s a potential for great harm to the environment should batteries end up there, there is also a lot of value in recycling batteries.
For the general public, we don’t have to worry too much about the various metals, chemicals, or battery types, such as lithium, alkaline, or zinc. Rather, just as with consumer electronics, there are often used battery receptacles located at many big-box stores around town.
8. Tires & Commercial Rubber
When a tire goes flat or the tread wears off, that’s about it, even though about 99% of the tire remains. Not only is there a lot of waste in this type of waste, but they take up lots of room at landfills, as well, with 75% of their volume being void space.
Many tires, and other commercial rubber materials, are difficult to recycle, so much of them have been burned to get rid of them, even when properly discarded. However, as technology advances, there have also been advances in the materials used for tires, with an increasing amount of biodegradability and reuse potential.
When getting rid of your tires, avoid the landfill. Instead, Google around for a recycling facility which specifically takes care of tires. If they can retread the tire, it could go back on the shelf for you or the next consumer. Otherwise, at least they’ll dispose of it in a way which won’t poison the ground and the creatures around.
Got a little time to kill and some DIY spirit? Here are some fun, funny, and creative ways to recycle your old tires.
9. Clothing & Textiles
Textile recycling, which includes clothing, rags, sheets, curtains, linens, and other similar materials, is a key way to reduce municipal solid waste (MSW). According to the EPA, the US generated 16,890 tons of textiles in 2017, of which just 2,570 tons were recycled.
If they make their way to landfills, clothing and other fibrous materials can take up to several hundred years to break down. But, recycling these textiles helps the environment by skipping the landfill and sending the clothing to plants to be sorted, cleaned, shredded, and respun.
To recycle clothing, check your local mall or retailers, such as H&M, as they often have bins where you can donate your used and unwanted garments. And an added bonus—many often give you a shopping discount for turning in your old clothes!
10. Fiberboard & Paperboard
First, is there a difference between fiberboard and paperboard?
Usually, most people use the term cardboard to refer to both items, but there’s a difference, according to some sources (though nothing official).
Paperboard is thin and formed of one layer, like paper, but thicker, less foldable, and more rigid than paper (think of a greeting card). Corrugated fiberboard is the three-layer kind you may be familiar with in shipping boxes, consisting of two rigid layers sandwiching a wavy middle one for strength.
In some recycling programs, there’s a differentiation between fiberboard recycling and paperboard recycling—some accept paperboard with paper, others accept paperboard with fiberboard separate from paper, and a few want all three to be separated.
So, to sum up on how recycling helps the environment—well, there are plenty of reasons, as you have seen. From reducing carbon emissions to conserving natural resources, recycling is one of the best ways we can fight climate change.
Have any feedback, questions, or other ways recycling protects the environment? Let us know in the comments below!
Oh, and if you have any recycling ideas, large or small, share them with the Goodwall community to help it get the visibility, traction, and support it deserves! Not a member of Goodwall yet? Sign up quickly and easily with the links below.