Andreas Späth

Is recycling a waste of time?

2015-10-19 13:35

Andreas Wilson-Späth

Recycling is a schlep. If, like me, you live in a place where the local municipality has not bothered to institute an organised, compulsory (or even voluntary) recycling programme for households (why the hell not, City of Cape Town?), you have to separate all of the different recyclable bits and pieces of rubbish that accumulate in your home yourself, and quite frankly, that’s a mission.

I’ve got a bunch of sturdy plastic containers in my garage into which we dump our paper, cardboard, glass, metal and plastic waste. Once these are full, I load them into the back of the car and drive them to our local recycling depot, which thankfully happens to be just around the corner.

To keep doing this takes time and effort which I’d much rather invest in other projects. I do it, because I know it’s supposed to be the right thing to do and, yes, because it does temper my tree hugger guilt about our family’s environmental footprint. But sometimes I wonder if it’s really worth it.

What if recycling is just an easy way to cultivate some sustainability street cred, that, while well-meaning, just happens to be a futile gesture with minimal real-world impact? Are we just kidding ourselves into thinking that we can make a difference by chucking our empty cooldrink cans and pizza boxes into recycling containers once a month?

The answer is pretty straight-forward: yes, recycling is valuable and we should all be doing it with as much of our waste as possible. If you’re still doubtful, consider the case of paper and have a look at a study commissioned by New Leaf Paper, a US-based distributor of ‘tree-free’ paper products, which was released earlier this month.

It compares a type of paper made out of 100% post-consumer recycled sources (the stuff you and I take to our local recycling depot) with three varieties of paper manufactured using virgin wood pulp, and considers the consequences their production has for human health and the environment.

The impacts considered in the study include categories such as the emission of dangerous pollutants like mercury, ozone, dioxin, airborne particulate matter, toxic herbicides, carcinogens and endocrine-disrupting chemicals, the consumption of water and non-renewable energy, the disruption of forest and freshwater ecosystems and the animal and plant species in them, the depletion of wood resources, as well as climate change and the acidification of the world’s oceans.

The results are telling. In the process of manufacturing the same quantity of paper, the 100% recycled variety when compared to old-fashioned dead-tree paper:

- uses between about 20 and 50% less energy and one-fourth the amount of water;

- has no impact on any rivers or wetlands (compared to between 600 and 770 watersheds affected by conventional paper production);

- does not threaten any endangered species (compared to between 9 and 115 species) or disturb any terrestrial biomes (compared to disturbances ranging from 30 to 80%);

- does not expose workers to hazardous herbicides or release any dioxins; and

- has less than 1% of the impact on ocean acidification and climate change.

This study confirms the results of many previous life-cycle assessments that have drawn similar conclusions, not just for paper, but for other recyclable materials as well. All of which should provide you with plenty of motivation to keep making those trips to the recycling depot even if it’s not your favourite activity.

Recycling isn’t just a meaningless exercise aimed at helping us assuage a guilty conscience over how we personally affect the natural environment. It’s a valuable and necessary lifestyle choice we should all adopt whenever and wherever possible.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.



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