Recycling is the processing of waste products to provide the raw material to make new ones. When you take materials to a bring bank or put them out for the local authority to collect, they have not at that point been recycled – although they have been collected for recycling. The recycling process as a whole is completed when we buy the products that have been made from the recycled materials.
Recycling reduces the demand for raw materials. By recovering materials from old products, we are removing or reducing the need to extract yet more raw materials from the earth. This is important because the vast majority of resources that we use in manufacturing products and providing services cannot be replaced. The use of these resources cannot go on indefinitely – we would run out.
Recycling means that we also avoid many of the additional environmental impacts associated with extracting the new resources, manufacturing and distributing the goods. Activities such as mining, quarrying and logging can be environmentally destructive, damaging the natural environment and local wildlife habitats. The processing and transportation activities also add to the environmental impact. Recycling often uses less energy and causes less pollution than using raw materials. For example, the manufacture of bags from recycled rather than virgin polythene reduces energy consumption by two-thirds, produces one-third of the sulphur dioxide and one-half of the nitrous oxide, uses only one-eighth of the water and reduces carbon dioxide generation.
Recycling is a positive step that we can take to help the environment. It encourages us to think about the waste we create and take responsibility for what happens to it. Ultimately this is the greatest advantage of recycling as raising awareness is the first step towards changing the way we deal with any problem.
How to start recycling
Your local authority is responsible for providing sites for recycling household waste. Most Local Authorities provide recycling banks at “bring sites” for recycling newspapers and magazines, aluminium cans, glass and textiles. Some also provide for a wider range of materials. These sites may simply be a collection of recycling banks at a suitable location (where car parking is provided) or maybe a dedicated “civic amenity site” or “household waste and recycling centre.
Some households may not be within easy walking distance of a recycling bank and you may need to use a car, with the associated energy and pollution implications. Try not to make a special car journey to recycle your waste, or better still, walk to the recycling banks!
Your local authority can direct you to your nearest facility, or check out our list of Bring and Recycling Centres.
Local authorities may also provide kerbside collection schemes and some provide home composting bins for householders to compost their organic waste. A total of 35% of households now have some kind of kerbside collection scheme. Householders are provided with separate bins in addition to the normal black bag or wheeled bin provided for general rubbish. Clean, dry, separated materials for recycling such as paper, aluminium and plastic are placed in the containers which are then collected – either on the same day or a different day to the normal refuse collection. Kerbside schemes make it easy and convenient for householders to recycle, and reduce the need for separate journeys to the recycling centre. Successful schemes in many local authority areas have demonstrated that curbside collection is an effective method of increasing recycling rates and diverting waste from disposal.
What happens to collected material?
After you put your waste materials in the recycling bank or container they are usually taken to a central depot where the materials are sorted, bulked up and baled for onward transportation. Usually, even if materials are separated fully by the householder, there is still some further sorting to be undertaken as there is likely to be a small amount of contamination with other materials. The depot is often a Materials Reclamation Facility (MRF). These may be “clean” MRFs or “dirty” MRFs.
Clean MRFs accept recyclables that have been separated from normal refuse (but they may arrive as a mixture of recyclables, for example, glass and cans). Dirty MRFs accept mixed rubbish (rather than separated recyclables) from households or businesses. The simplest sorting techniques at MRFs are manual, employing people to pick out materials from a raised belt. However, mechanical sorting systems have developed considerably over recent years, and continue to develop.
The bales are sent to reprocessors such as paper mills, glassmakers or plastic reprocessing plants where the material is processed for use in other applications or processed directly into a new product. In Ireland, we send most of our waste abroad to be recycled as we have not yet developed many reprocessing facilities Some materials such as aluminium and glass can be recycled indefinitely, as the process does not affect their structure.. Other materials, such as paper, require a mixture of waste and raw material to manufacture a new product. With material such as plastic, the waste is converted into a granulate or pellet which is then used in the manufacture of a recycled or part-recycled plastic product.
What can we recycle?
Bottle banks are found in many supermarket car parks and local authority areas and usually have separate compartments for clear, green and brown glass. Blue glass can be put into the green bank and clear glass with coloured coatings can be put into the clear bank as the coating will burn off. The labels on bottles and jars will be removed during the recycling process, however remove as many plastic or metal rings and tops as possible. Only recycle bottles and jars – never light bulbs, window or sheet glass or Pyrex type dishes as these are made from a different type of glass.
Almost a quarter of all household waste and a half of all commercial waste in Ireland is paper. Newspapers, magazines, junkmail cardboard packaging can all be recycled either through kerbside collection or through local bring centres. Packaging such as milk and juice cartons cannot be recycled as paper as they have a plastic lining which would contaminate the process.
Aluminium and steel cans
Many local authorities have mixed can banks accepting both aluminium and steel cans, although some have aluminium-only banks as uncontaminated aluminium has a higher value. Try to crush drinks cans before recycling, either with a can crusher or by squashing them underfoot. .
All charity shops accept unwanted clothing, which is then sold in charity shops, given to the homeless or sent abroad. Even damaged or unwearable clothing can be converted into items such as wiping cloths, shredded for use as filling for items such as furniture or car insulation or rewoven into new yarn or fabric. If you deposit shoes, tie them together as they tend to go astray! Some local authorities provide separate textile collections at some of their bring centres.
Plastic is a difficult material to recycle as there are many different types of plastic (often indicated by a number, or letters such as PET or PVC). The variation in plastic types means that different reprocessing techniques are required. The different types of plastic therefore need to be collected separately or sorted after collection, as reprocessors will specify which type of plastic they will accept. Plastic in household waste is often food packaging and therefore too contaminated to be recycled effectively.
Organic household waste is food and garden waste. Organic waste is a problem if sent to landfill, because it is impossible to separate out from other waste once mingled, and will rot producing methane, a greenhouse gas responsible for global warming. The best way to dispose of organic waste is to compost it either through a centralised composting scheme or at home.
Electrical and electronic equipment
At the present time there are very few facilities for recycling household electrical or electronic waste although this is set to change with the introduction of the EU Directive on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE). Some local authorities have Recycling Centres that take large white goods and mobile phone recycling is now common around the country.
Batteries are varied and complex, come in different shapes and types and are consequently very difficult to sort and recycle. Rechargeable nickel cadmium batteries do still contain hazardous metals and should be returned to the manufacturer where possible. A few local authorities provide facilities for recycling these, as well as lead acid car batteries, which may also be returned to garages. If you use rechargeable batteries look out for the new versions containing no mercury or cadmium.
Some household items are actually very harmful to the environment if thrown into the grey bin for landfilling. Keep household paint, make-up, nail varnish, medicines, oil, bulbs etc in a safe place and bring to the regular / periodic “Hazardous Household Waste Collection” organised by your local authority.
THE RECYCLING SYMBOL
Products and packaging often have some kind of recycling symbol on them. The most common is the mobius loop, which can mean that a product is either recyclable or has some recycled content. Unless the product states the percentage of recycled content, the symbol usually means that the product can be recycled. This does not mean that it will be recycled or that such facilities exist. Many products can be recycled in theory, but the technology or money may not be available to provide collection schemes for householders.
The Green Dot is a pan-European symbol that appears under licence on the packaging of products you buy. It means that the supplier of that packaging is committed to protecting the environment by funding the recovery and recycling of their packaging waste. The Green Dot is a registered trademark and its use is administered by PRO-Europe (Packaging Recovery Organisation Europe). Countries using the Green Dot manage this organisation.
In Ireland, Repak is permitted by PRO-Europe to sub-license the use of the Green Dot to its Members. Anyone wishing to use the Green Dot in Ireland must enter into a Trademark Licence Agreement with Repak.