Recycling, is it really a Sustainable choice?

Recycling? yes everyone with sanity knows it is a right step towards sustainability. In 2020 it would be hard to acknowledge if recycling is not being done in workplaces, schools etc. already. Sustainability takes into account all three aspects- Environmental, Social and Economical. Let’s dive little deeper and check if Recycling is really Sustainable.

Recycling at its core is reuse of the virgin material used, in an effective way such that it is being used for the same or different application at the end of it’s life and reused again and again till it looses its value completely. Recycling could be primary, secondary or tertiary based on the profile and application of the material. For example: A Towel used for bathing could later be used for wiping screens or build a hammock without any alteration in shape (Primary) few days later as it starts loosing it’s value, this towel could be cut into small pieces and can be used as napkin, alteration without heavy use of chemicals/technology (Secondary) Later the same pieces could be recycled with chemical process to form a fibre which could be used for different application like making rug (Tertiary).

While, Primary and Secondary ways could be adopted easily, Tertiary recycling is where the journey of the sustainability starts. End use of materials can be classified as Composition of Biological nutrients and Technical nutrients. At its base, Biological nutrients are natural materials like Paper, Wood, Cotton and Technical nutrients are Man made materials like plastic, synthetic fibres etc. Ideally, technical nutrients can be recycled forever. In realistic world, they don’t. Biological nutrients at the end of their lives can be composted, giving rise to new application from the basic natural nutrients. Few of the materials which are used daily, are hybrid of the mentioned nutrients and cannot be recycled. For example: Paper container with plastic lining.

Suppose at a mall a recycling bin is placed, after meals, after drinks, the materials would be dropped in the recycle bin. Everyone could walk out knowing they took a step towards sustainability, they would promote their actions, inspire the rest to follow the trend but, did they? Sustainability is dependent on a variable - material. If the material dropped in the recycle bin is hybrid, needless to say, overall footprint could actually increase. These hybrid materials will be transported to recycling center only to deport back to Landfill. Hence it is crucial to nudge, learn and then take action. So is it Sustainable?

To answer it let’s talk about Aluminium, Aluminium is known as the star of recycling. Stanford study indicates, Aluminium cans saves 95% of the energy required to make the same amount of aluminium from its virgin source. In numerical form 1 ton of recycled aluminium saves for 10,000 kilowatt hour energy. Aluminium association states, 75% of produced Aluminium is still in use. Imagine if the recycle bin container mentioned above is filled with Aluminium Cans, will it be sustainable?

Sustainability comprises of complex systems hence it is essential to study the constraints, analyse the variables and look at the long term actions to ensure that the taken step is in the direction of sustainability. Recycling is sustainable- it generates jobs, wages, tax revenues which later is used for the benefit of the society with less carbon footprint but if basic study is not conducted, at long run, sustainability of recycling would be jeopardized as one pillar of the Sustainability (Environment) would shake.