Recycling isn’t all it’s chalked up to be. If you read the first part of this series you’ll remember that because of contamination it hardly ever works the way we think it does . But when it does work, what actually happens to the 9% that gets recycled, and how green is that?
The Energy Efficiency Dilemma
Let’s start with energy use. EROI is what those in the biz call energy return on investment, a ratio of energy output to energy input for any product over its lifecycle. The smaller the ratio, the more energy wasted.
It’s easy to see recycling as a superhero saving the world from becoming a plastic wasteland. Turning our waste into resources sounds great, in theory. But while throwaway plastic can be recovered as clothing fabric or car parts, it’s not that simple.
When talking about the overall energy efficiency of recycling, there are three things we have to consider:
1. The recyclables that don’t get recycled.
Virgin plastics, which sound like a Mean Girls spinoff, but really just means plastics made from newly extracted raw materials, are extremely energy inefficient. Their EROI gets even smaller as their waste goes up. Considering a whopping 91% of plastics don’t get recycled at all, the amount of time and energy that goes into producing, exporting, and importing them just doesn’t add up.
2. Recycling requires additional energy.
A recycled product is the sum of the energy put into producing the virgin plastic + the energy put into recycling it. Wherever processing is involved, energy is expended. Unfortunately that energy often comes from fossil fuels – surprise, surprise.
3. The energy efficiency of recycling varies by material.
Just to make things even more complicated, this additional energy input depends on the material being recycled. We’ve took the liberty of mapping it out for you:
As you can see, the energy savings of recycling aluminium, and most plastics, far outweigh that of glass. And even for plastics, there’s a wide range of energy savings making our job harder.
So, while recycling is better than producing a steady stream of virgin materials bound for the landfill, in the hierarchy of waste management – think R’s – it’s the least efficient solution.
Not convinced? Then check out the Ellen Macarther Foundation’s famous Recycling butterfly diagram.
The hand-me-downs of plastics. But more high maintenance.
Downcycling is the recycling of waste into new products that are of a lower quality and functionality than the original. It almost exclusively refers to plastics, which unlike their recyclable counterparts, can only be recycled once or twice into a new product before ending up in a landfill.
So, when virgin materials get recycled, they go through multiple stages which each require additional energy input before they become “good as new” again. That’s a lot of effort for hand-me-downs.
We’ll break it down:
There are a lot of ways we collect recyclables, including curbside pick-up, drop-off centers, and refund programs. The energy input we’re concerned with at this stage is transportation, or how much fuel is used before processing even begins.
After collection, plastic recyclables are sent to facilities to be sorted (*energy*), cleaned (*energy*), then broken down to component parts and put back together (*more energy*) into materials that are bought and sold like any other raw materials. And they still aren't usable yet.
Manufacturers purchase the processed materials, then assemble them into larger consumer products. This means more fuel and more mechanical energy.
Compared to processing and manufacturing virgin plastics, 1 ton of recycled plastic saves about 1/3 of the energy, not to mention a big chunk of landfill space. That sounds like a lot of energy savings. But in reality it’s not.
Downcycling is the best existing option to deal with plastic waste, but like we said it’s far from perfect. Plastics can only be recycled once or twice before they become garbage. So, with every downcycle, less and less energy is saved, reducing the overall EROI and sustainability of the whole process.
So, we ask again, what’s a green-hearted person to do?
If we seriously want to reduce our plastic waste in an energy efficient way, we need to do two things:
Moral of the story - and this should be sinking in now - reduce, refuse, reuse, repair, repurpose, rethink, and then recycle.
Words by Emilie Swan
* Table References: