Burning or incineration had always been the old reliable in waste disposal since time immemorial. Today, we already have waste management systems and several methods of disposing wastes: landfills, incineration, minimization, composting, and recycling.
Each of these methods has its own good and bad points in terms of efficiency, cleanliness in relation to the environment, and economic feasibility. There has not been a total winner in any of these waste disposal methods.
Recycling comes nearest because it is clean (no harmful emissions or toxic waste discharges) it is efficient (does not need big spaces) and cheap (little or no investments).
What is recycling, and what are its advantages over the other waste disposal methods?
In absolute terms, recycling is actually not a disposal system. It is the reuse of materials that had been disposed of as waste. Theoretically, recycling is the continued use of materials for the same purpose.
In practice, recycling is the extension of the useful life of the material, but it can be in some other form. Most of today’s recyclable materials are post-consumer waste (empty glass and plastic bottles, used paper and cartoons, etc.)
The most common items that are recycled in industrialized nations are aluminum soda cans, aerosol cans, plastic and glass bottles and jars, old newspapers and magazines, and cardboards or used carton boxes.
When paper is recycled, the fibers lose their length, thereby making it less useful for high grade paper (book or bond paper, etc). Most of them are used to make cartoons, low-grade newsprint and other low-grade paper products. Some types of plastic are composed of the same type of materials and are relatively easy to recycle into new products.
As an alternative to plain garbage disposal, recycling is useful in the sense that it does not add to the waste in landfills, and it becomes another material resource.
Today, experts and the enlightened populace have acknowledged that simply disposing of waste materials is unsustainable in the long run. The supply of raw materials from nature is finite and cannot last.
In waste management, there is a new idea that considers waste materials as a resource to be exploited and used, and not the old concept of looking at them as a challenge to be managed or disposed of. It is called resource recovery.
Resource recovery can take different forms. One is the materials might be extracted and recycled accordingly, or some of them are to be converted into energy (electricity).
Costs and economics
Used materials have to compete with new materials in manufacturing. Most often, collection costs of recyclables are higher than costs of new materials.
However, not many are aware that it usually requires less energy, less water, and less other resources to recycle materials than produce the product from new materials. (Recycling 1000 kilos of aluminum cans save 5000 kilos of bauxite ore to be mined, and 95% of the energy to refine it.)
The economics of a successful recycling process depends on manufacturers making products from recovered materials and consumers buying these products.
Recycling is one method of waste management that is nearest to the ideal – less or no actual physical wastage, low costs, and no environmental damage.