What is recycling?

… and why is it so important to the future of our planet?

In the UK, we generate enough rubbish in eight months to fill Britain’s largest lake, Lake Windermere. Or to put it another way, enough to fill London’s Albert Hall in just two hours! That’s a lot of rubbish, and sending it to landfill is bad for the environment for many reasons.

Let’s imagine a plastic bottle is thrown in the bin. Here’s what happens:

  • The energy that went into creating that bottle in the first place is wasted.
  • More energy and raw materials must be used to create another bottle (after all, we always need bottles!).
  • The bottle takes up space in a landfill site, which can create water pollution and greenhouse gases.
  • If the bottle is incinerated, it will contribute to air pollution.

What’s the alternative? Recycling, of course.

What is meant by recycling?

Recycling is the process of turning waste and used items into new, useful materials or products. This not only gives the old items a new lease of life, it also reduces the amount of raw material used to make new things from scratch.

What are the benefits of recycling?

Recycling conserves natural resources, saves energy, protects the environment, reduces landfill and creates jobs.

Conserving natural resources

The less raw material we use, the less we’ll deplete the Earth’s precious (and finite) natural resources. If we can re-use old, recycled materials instead to create consumer goods and appliances, we will reduce the amount of mining and forestry taking place.

Recycling can help to preserve vital raw materials and protect natural habitats and wildlife.

Saving energy

Recycling uses less energy than making a new product from scratch – even when you take account of all the related costs, like transport and wages.

Mining, quarrying, logging, processing and transporting raw materials to prepare them for use in industry takes a great deal of energy.

It’s far less energy intensive to re-use old material that’s already been processed and prepared – and because recycling saves energy, it also cuts down greenhouse gas emissions.

Protecting the environment

Recycling helps to reduce air, water and land pollution. It means there’s less need for mining, quarrying and timber production, which all contribute considerably to air and water pollution, as well as destroying the landscapes where they operate.

Recycling is also helping to slow down climate change, as it helps to reduce the ‘greenhouse effect’.

Reducing landfill

There are over 1,500 landfill sites in the UK, and they produce around a quarter of the UK’s methane emissions. They are also ugly and can be a health hazard.

Recycling can reduce the need to create more landfill sites in the future.

Creating jobs

Recycling companies employ people to collect and sort used items. Other people transport the sorted materials to the companies that can use them. Designers and scientists are employed to find new, inventive ways to use recycled materials.

What happens to my recycling once it’s collected?

Your recycled items will be taken to a sorting centre and – yes – sorted. They’ll then be sent to the places where they can be most useful.

All kinds of products are made in the UK from recycled materials:

  • All our UK newspapers are now printed on 100% recycled paper.
  • All garden and kitchen waste collected by recycling teams is re-used, usually as compost – mostly in the local area where it’s collected.
  • Most of the glass collected for recycling is used to make new glass bottles and jars.

Some left-over materials are sent abroad. Various countries (China in particular) will pay good money for recyclables like waste plastic. This is because these nations don’t have easy access to sources of raw materials; for example, they might not have any native forests or drillable oil reservoirs – yet their manufacturing industry has a need for these materials, even in a pre-used form.

Although this means our waste recycling journey is much longer, and uses more raw materials in the form of fuel for lorries or container ships, it’s still a preferable option for the good of the environment than if we used virgin, raw materials because:

  • It cuts down on the use of natural resources like oil or timber.
  • It substantially reduces energy use and CO2 emissions during the manufacturing process.
  • The container ships carrying the waste recycling to China have already brought goods to the UK, and would otherwise have to return empty.
  • It reduces the amount of the Earth’s surface that needs to be turned into landfill sites.

Recycling begins at home

Sometimes it may feel as though recycling your household waste is just a drop in the ocean when you compare it with the damage caused by industry worldwide.

And yes, of course big companies create horrendous amounts of waste and pollution, but if every household recycles it really does make a difference. Recycling in the UK saves more than 18 million tonnes of CO2 each year – that’s equal to the amount we’d save if we took 5 million cars off our roads. And the consequences of not recycling at all are too horrible to contemplate – a world of festering landfill sites and islands of plastic clogging our oceans.

Our top recycling tips

  1. Keep your recycling boxes somewhere central and easily accessible. Otherwise it can become too much of a chore to recycle that plastic bottle of shampoo you used up in the bathroom or the empty drinks can dropped on the floor of your car.
  2. Recycling isn’t just about your weekly council collection. Take old clothes and books to your local charity shop or swap them with friends. Book a spot in a car boot sale and make some money from your unwanted stuff. Set up a charity book shop or bring-and-buy sale at work.
  3. If you’ve got a garden, get a compost bin. You can put all your vegetable peelings, eggshells, nutshells, grass cuttings and prunings in there, as well as cardboard and shredded paper.
  4. Even if your clothes, bed linen or curtains are in a very poor state, don't throw them away. Your recycling collectors may take them; if not, there are often textile recycling banks in supermarket carparks, and some charity shops are prepared to take them, as they can sell them on to rag collectors.
  5. Want to get rid of an item of furniture, or an electrical appliance that’s still in working order? Advertise it on Freecycle or Freegle – it might be just what someone else needs.
  6. If you’ve got odds and ends of wood left over after DIY projects, you can donate them to your local wood reclamation yard or take them to a civic amenity site to be recycled or turned into bark chippings. There are also community schemes and collection points for any leftover paint.


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