How recycling works (and where it fails)

how recycling works

I'm speaking here about the European, specifically the German recycling system. So, I don't know how exactly recycling works in other parts of the world. But Germany proudly calls itself "recycling world champion" - for recycling 65% of its trash -! Doesn't seem an aaaawful lot. But by recycling 65%, Germany has already hit the EU target for 2030. 



how recycling works

Paper, glass and plastic, right? 

Well, that's what I thought. Here's the reality check:

While glass and paper are, indeed, almost 100% recyclable, plastic is a whole other story.

Of all the plastic trash, Germany only recycles 43%. The rest is incinerated for heat or energy. (Some sources even state that 80% of the plastic waste is incinerated!)

But well, at least, it doesn't end up in landfills - anymore -. Landfills are the worst. Waste toxins get into the ground water and their gases pollute the air. What happens to the toxins if you incinerate waste? Well, most of them are eliminated in the incinerating process and anything that is left, undergoes a purifying treatment. Meaning, the nasty smokes rising from the waste incineration plants are actually quite(!) clean. 


Why isn't all plastic recyclable?

A lot of plastic packaging, like chips bags or tooth paste tubes are made of mixed plastics, which are virtually impossible to separate. Only single-variety plastics are recyclable - like PET plastic bottles -

Also, some sorting facilities don't recognize certain plastics, like yoghurt cups, which are made of a plastic cup, a glued label and an aluminium lid. 

how recycling works

What happens next?

Glass is crushed, melted and moulded into new products. Glass can be recycled again and again without loss of quality. Great!

Paper is mixed with water. By adding different materials to the mix, different paper products can be created (cardboard, newsprints, office paper, etc.) However, recycling compromises the fiber. Meaning, paper cannot be recycled infinitely.

Plastic, though, *sigh*... There are many many different sorts of plastic, so they first must be separated by type. Only certain plastics can be recycled, at all!  The plastic is ground up into flakes, melted and formed into pellets. These are used for manufacturing new products. As plastic, usually, can only be recycled once, the tendency is to "downcycle" into non-recyclable items like fleece clothing. 

While recycling is awesome and, really, thank God for recycling, it is still a very very expensive method that needs a lot resources. Especially plastic is such a pain to recycle! If you really want to live sustainably, you should reduce your plastic waste to the very minimum. Thanks to the Zero Waste movement, there are increasingly more (online) shops that offer alternatives to plastic (solid tooth paste in a tin box, stainless steel containers, bulk grocery shopping, etc.) It's becoming more and more easy to reduce (plastic) waste - which should be the end goal -! Recycling, after all, is just the lesser of the two evils and not the final answer to the world's waste problem.