Of all the processes that define waste management in today’s modern age, recycling is one of the most important and most well-known. Just a few years ago, we used to send recyclable products such as paper, glass and plastic to landfill, creating huge areas of waste that were simply left to degrade over time.
With the advent of policies such as the EU Waste Framework Directive and legislation including the Environmental Protection Act 1995, more onus has been put on individuals and businesses to make sure that their waste is reused and repurposed. Councils too have become leaders in the recycling of our waste on an unprecedented scale.
What is Recycling?
Recycling is the processing of making waste materials into new, useful products. For example, waste paper can be pulped and made into new paper while glass can be melted down and manufactured into fresh bottles and containers. We undertake this kind of recycling operation nowadays as a matter of course, as part of our general waste management, in order to reduce the amount of raw materials we use. Of course, it wasn’t always that way.
The History of Recycling
We spent much of the twentieth century sending our waste to landfill areas and simply taking virgin material to make new products. In a consumer society where everything is relatively cheap, we failed to take into account the impact of this on our planet.
That doesn’t mean recycling is a recent practice. We’ve been doing it since ancient times. For instance, the Romans recycled old coins to make into statues and during time of famine or war materials have regularly been repurposed because of extreme circumstances.
In fact, in preindustrial times we were pretty good at recycling what we had. Part of that was necessity but part was because we didn’t know any differently. The industrial age changed all that. Things started to be manufactured on a massive scale and it was suddenly easier to go out and buy a new product rather than find a recycled solution or make do with what we had.
In fact, the only time we turned seriously to recycling was during wars when we had to find the resources to make weapons, planes and other military gear. At the end of the Second World War though, recycling became important because of economic reasons but as we prospered during the 40s and 50s landfills became ever more prominent and we sent huge amounts of waste to it.
The first recycling centres started in the mid-seventies but it wasn’t until the turn of this century that we became serious about it on a large, world wide scale. The benefits of recycling are nowadays plain to see by all. For example, recycling aluminium uses just 5% of the energy needed to create it from virgin sources. The number of products that we can recycle, including Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE), has also increased over the last few years as our technology has improved.
Different Types of Recycling
Paper recycling: We produce something in the region of 9 million tonnes of paper and cardboard in the UK alone each year – that’s the equivalent of about 17 trees per tonne. Recycling not only saves those trees but also reduces the amount of waste we send to landfill and saves about 40,000 kWh of energy per tonne of paper produced.
Plastic Recycling: Compared to paper, plastic recycling is a lot more problematical. Not only are there about 50 different types of plastic but there’s also quite a lot of it, everything from water bottles and television components to packaging and utensils. The other major problem with plastic is that it takes thousands of years to break down naturally and so finding ways to recycle it is vitally important.
Metal Recycling: All types of metal can be reused or melted down and manufactured into new products. Often the problem with equipment with multi-components such as WEEE (waste electronic and electrical equipment) is that the metal needs to be separated from other components in order to be recycled. This can often be costly and problematic but our technology is improving all the time.
IT Recycling: One area that has increased over the last twenty years is IT equipment. This contains a range of components including plastic, metal and glass that can all be removed and recycled in some way. As with all WEEE, how this is done is key to making recovery and recycling more profitable.
The development of recycling as an industry has led to the invention of a range of different kinds of equipment that are designed to automate the process and make it more efficient.
- Balers take waste such as paper and collect it into bundles, tying it and making it easier to transport to recycling plants.
- Shredders take objects like fridges, televisions and other WEEE, pulling them apart into smaller components. These can be reduced even more by granulators and raspers before it is taken for separation.
- Waste that has been cut up needs to be separated. This can either be done manually by trained waste disposal staff or through automated processes with machines that remove metal and plastic using water and magnets.
Each type of waste has its own recycling equipment and processes. Paper, for instance, is taken to pulping mills and then transformed into a new product. Metal will be melted down and plastic can be made into polyethylene film or plastic bags.
The Future of Recycling
The future of recycling is looking good. Processes are becoming more cost effective and we are finding ways of repurposing materials that would previously have been taken to landfill. The circular economy is becoming very important – keeping products in use for as long as possible and getting maximum value out of them but also repurposing and recycling as cost efficiently as possible so as little value is lost from the materials. One area where great improvements might be just around the corner is food and garden waste recycling with the use of composting and anaerobic digestion on a much larger scale than before. That could include towns and cities making energy out of their waste products, helping to light and heat homes.
Local Recycling Services
Most householders will depend on their local council for recycling when they have their weekly waste collection. We all separate our bottles and plastic, our card and paper so that it can be managed more effectively. For businesses, hiring a waste collection service and recycling company is part of their duty of care to ensure they dispose of their waste appropriately.
You can now search for local recycling services in your area on our comprehensive contractor database.