We grew up with the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra on repeat, thanks to the EPA’s recycling-centric campaign that started in the 1990s. With a growing population that will likely reach 8 billion souls in 2023 and 10 billion by 2050, we need new solutions to manage the massive amount of waste the human race generates.
The recycling industry will continue to grow and develop in the coming years. Why is energy efficiency so essential for this development?
Recycling Inherently Saves Energy
Recycling, by its very nature, already helps to save some energy. Almost all cases require a fraction of the power to produce materials using recycled goods than it does to use new or virgin materials.
Aluminum – used in everything from soda cans to automobile parts – takes a massive amount of energy in heat and electricity to smelt from bauxite ore. Melting down already-processed aluminum cans and scraps takes a mere 6% of the energy of smelting fresh ore.
Glass, on the other hand, only offers a 30% energy savings when recycled, but we can recycle glass a near-infinite number of times. Unlike aluminum and other recyclable materials, glass doesn’t degrade when melted down. The key here isn’t to reduce recycling to save energy, but to make it more energy efficient for recycling facilities to complete their jobs.
Building a Circular Economy
Currently, our economy relies on a linear model in which we mine resources and refine them into products that become waste at the end of their lives. With the growing population, this linear economy is no longer sustainable. We need to focus on a more sustainable circular economy. A circular economy aims to reduce or eventually eliminate waste by capturing as much waste as possible as a resource for making new products.
The problem with the idea of a circular economy lies in the inefficiency of most recycling programs. Currently, only about one-third of our recyclable waste is recycled. Everything else ends up in landfills or discarded and washed into the oceans. We can’t hope to create a circular economy if we can’t even get this whole recycling thing down.
Recycling More Difficult Items
When most people think of recycling, they picture separating things like glass, plastic, and paper into their respective bins. This step is only one part of the operation and a mere fraction of what we can recycle. Many materials, such as lead-acid car batteries or nonfunctional electronics, can also be recycled. The problem is in the process.
Recycling glass or plastic is straightforward. Clean material is broken down and melted or otherwise processed into new products ready for sale. This step is simple because there is generally only one type of material to be recycled.
There are many different materials to contend with when it comes to batteries or electronics, many of which may be toxic. Lead-acid batteries use an acidic electrolyte, and exposure to lead can be harmful. Electronics contain a variety of rare-earth metals that can be dangerous if not handled correctly. There are some facilities capable of this sort of specialized recycling. Still, they are rare enough to barely dent the 20-50 million metric tons of e-waste discarded every year.
Going Green Is Imperative
If we hope to create a circular economy and reduce the astonishing amount of waste the human race produces every year, creating a more energy-efficient recycling system will be essential. Instead of being proud of the mere 30% we recycle each year, we need to strive to recycle as much as humanly possible without doing additional damage to the environment with unsustainable practices.
Looking into energy efficiency for recycling facilities is the first step toward creating a green and, more importantly, circular future.
About the author: Jane works as an environmental and energy writer. She is also the founder and editor-in-chief of Environment.co