Recycling is always good: myth or not?

As a science-based method, LCA is an excellent tool to bust the myths that surround sustainability. In this monthly series, we look at some common sustainability ideas to see if they are myth or true. In today’s episode: recycling.

The focus on recycling is everywhere. Product designers are taught to consider Design for Disassembly when developing a new product, so materials can be recovered at the product’s end-of-life. At operations, too, recycling is heavily incentivised, because it is obviously the right thing to do… But is recycling really always the right thing to do? The benefits of recycling: myth or not?

Recycling has its impacts…

There is something people need to be aware of: recycling also results in environmental impacts, some quite significant.

  • Waste collection and transportation to sorting facilities is done using vehicles that run on fossil fuels.
  • Fossil fuel combustion releases greenhouse gases and particulate matter.
  • Sorting facilities, particularly for electronic waste, are often located in Asia or Africa due to low labour costs. The recovered materials are then often shipped back to developed countries. This waste travels the whole world and comes back to the same place from where it departed just so materials can be recovered.
  • Sorting is increasingly mechanical, which requires electricity.

Finally, you cannot overlook the environmental impact resulting from processing of waste to make a new product. For example, it frequently takes more energy and chemicals to make paper from waste paper than from virgin pulp because of the extra cleaning involved. The recovered material is often contaminated, so the new product manufactured with recycled material may be contaminated even before leaving the factory.

…and its benefits

The main benefit of recycling is, of course, that materials are recovered. Recovered material can get a second life, so less virgin material needs to be produced. For example, steel recovered from the body of a car during recycling can be used in a different application later on. This way, there is no need to extract iron ore through mining.

Eco-design beyond disassembly

The production of recycled paper avoids cutting down new trees. WRAP found out that producing 1 tonne of recycled paper can save 1.32 tonnes of CO2 equivalent. In this case, however, there is a shift of burdens from one life cycle stage to another. On the one hand, there is a credit of CO2 because there is no need to cut down new trees. On the other hand, the extra energy needed to produce recycled paper causes extra greenhouse gas emissions. Burdens can also shift from one environmental theme to another, e.g. fossil fuel depletion to land use.

Recycling-focused design: myth or not?

Status: half-mythical

Recycling can definitely be a great idea, and its benefits are tangible. But don’t forget to look at recycling impacts either. Please consider recycling like you were taught to do because material recovery is an important option to take into account. But whether recycling is beneficial depends on each specific situation.

My advice? Make sure you assess the entire life cycle of your product and all environmental themes. Only if everything is taken into account can you make a well-informed decision. You can do this with a simplified life cycle assessment study.

Recycling looks good on the surface. But make sure to assess that initial perception, because it may not always be right…

Uncover more sustainability myths

This is the second part of our ‘Sustainability Mythbusters’ series. See other episodes:

It’s easy to use common sense and make assumptions in sustainability, but is that always worth your efforts? If you want to learn how you can use sustainability metrics to uncover more myths for your company, contact us.

Marisa Vieira

Director of Solutions

The time of the industrial revolution is over. Now it is time for the green revolution to go full steam ahead! Everybody needs to be involved in this process, therefore I aim to guide individuals and businesses in understanding the trade-offs between impacts. This will help them make informed decisions, which will truly help sustainable living thrive."

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