A small plastic cup, wrapped in paper covered with attention-grabbing colors, topped with an aluminum-ish lid. And those are the first three things of trash for the day after waking up and eating a yoghurt.

When someone would ask “What’s the single most important service a city government has to provide to its citizens?”, waste management probably isn’t one of the things that would pop up in most people’s heads. Unless you’re living in the slums of undeveloped cities, that is.

Depending on who you’d ask, people tend to enumerate about three to five methods through which we can lower our immense waste production habits. These reasons are better known as the R’s and generally include: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse/Repurpose, Recycle, Rot, Residual management, Repair and Respect. Each one of these is important, but today we’ll focus our attention on recycling.

On average, citizens of the EU produce a staggering 483 kg of municipal waste each year. That’s more than 1.3 kg of waste every single day! Even though most countries offer recycling options, more than half of this waste still ends up being incinerated or dumped in landfills. This is a waste of valuable resources. Partly, it is caused by the fact that not all materials are recyclable. But the main cause is that many people tend to disregard recycling all-together or fail to follow simple guidelines. But let’s go back to the start; what is recycling?

 

What is recycling?

Recycling basically means breaking down materials to their base form and convert them into new products. The Oxford living dictionary describes it as: “The action or process of converting waste into reusable material.”

Take recyclable aluminum drinking cans for example. After you put them in the recycling bin, they’re brought to the factory where they are shredded and melted down to be formed back into new cans. The can that you just threw into the recycling bin can already be filled with soda and back in your fridge in less than 2 months! Instead of using new raw materials to make the product packaging that you buy in stores, the industry has developed ways to use your “thrash” instead. How great is that?!

recycle-aluminum-cans-drink

Recycling is certainly nothing new. It has been around as long as humankind. People initially tended to “recycle” their belongings to get more out of them. Reusing and repurposing would probably be a better term to describe it. One didn’t throw out a pair of pants just because they had a small tear; people repaired them. This way, one would get more value out of the items bought with their hard earned money. (And so could you!)

All of this changed as our culture grew more and more towards the current single use, new is better, attitude. This resulted in the recycling business as we know it. All, just to deal with the incredible amounts of waste generated these days. We’ve evolved from recycling items ourselves, in order to get the most value out of them – to helping big industries recycle our massive waste stream to support our current consumer culture. And though it sounds so simple, we’re failing to even do that correctly.

Where reusing and upcycling items was common sense in the past, recycling nowadays has become necessary to keep our heads above our waste.  

 

Why should we recycle

So why is it important to recycle? The advantages of recycling your waste are myriad. Recycling, similar to food waste, can be considered as a so-called low hanging fruit. In particular within developed countries that is. With as little effort as separating your waste, you’ll be making a substantial contribution to not only the health of your local community but also that of our planet in its entirety!

Let’s take a look at some of the most pronounced benefits of recycling:

  • Recycling saves valuable resources: the creations of new products is incredibly demanding on the raw materials available on our planet. By recycling, you’ll help in preserving these preciouses (limited) resources.
  • Recycling reduces energy consumption: Recycling old products into new costs substantially less energy than producing new from raw materials. Making new cans from recycled cans saves as much as 95% of energy costs compared to making new cans from scratch.
  • Recycling helps mitigate climate change: by reducing the energy needed to create new products, the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere is also reduced heavily.
  • Recycling helps protect natural habitat: the ways in which recycling helps protect our planet and its few remaining natural habitats are manifold. Using recycled materials for example helps reduce the need to mine for new raw materials during which natural habitats often get destroyed. But by mitigating climate change, we also help habitat preservation.
  • Recycling helps decrease the size of our landfills: recycling results in less trash being sent to landfills, which in-turn reduces pollution in many ways, such as the emission and seepage of harmful substances into its surroundings.

As you can see, these reasons are heavily intertwined with one another; as is everything on Earth. This is, however, just a subset of the reasons to recycle and the importance of recycling is certainly not one to be underestimated.

 

What can be recycled

Recycling does not just happen. To be honest, it costs quite some effort. It can be tedious to find clear rules about what’s allowed in recycling and what isn’t. And these rules even differ per country and region. In many places, the government could certainly take up a more leading role in this manner. This should, however, not stop you from taking up responsibility for your own actions; your civic duty. Once you get the hang of it, recycling really isn’t that much of an effort. It becomes second nature and in some countries, it’ll even save you some money along the way!

Broadly speaking, the following things can be recycled in your household:

  • Glass
  • Metal/aluminum
  • Plastic
  • Paper
  • Batteries
  • Light bulbs
  • Electrical household appliances
  • Vehicles
  • Textiles
  • Used oil
  • Hazardous household waste
  • Tires

As each region takes care of its own waste management and recycling, you’ll have to search around for the specifics of your community. Where one recycling company accepts non-rigid plastic packaging, another might not. And in some regions, a company collects recyclables at your home from special bins, whilst in other areas you’re responsible for bringing it to a recycling station.

But knowing what can be recycled isn’t enough. We’ll also have to learn to recognize the recyclable materials we buy every day.

 

Take up a second language: the recycling language

There are many things we’d love for countries to be universally aligned on. Recycling symbols are one of them. Luckily, some symbols are quite simple to understand, and they’re standard across Europe at least. But certainly not all of them are!

The website www.recyclenow.com provides a great overview of the most common recycling symbols around in many places across the EU. These symbols could however differ from where you live. Make sure to do a proper search on the symbols used on packaging materials bought at your local grocery store.

Knowing and understanding the recycling symbols will help you identify the materials admissible at your local recycling company.

 

The importance of following the guidelines

One last note with which we’d like to conclude; the importance of following the recycling guidelines provided by your local recycling company. We cannot overstate how crucial this is. One greasy pizza carton covered in oil can ruin a whole batch of paper; nullifying the recycling efforts of many people around you.

Your local recycling company doesn’t publish its recycling guidelines without reason. They’re there to help them recycle our waste as efficiently and successfully as possible. It’ll probably be more harmful not to follow the guidelines than not to recycle your waste at all. So please take good care of them and follow them as best you can. Planet Earth will thank you!

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