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Glossary

Recycled

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Definition

Recycled materials are products or substances that have been collected from waste or discarded items and processed to create new usable materials.

These materials have previously served their intended purpose and have undergone reprocessing to extend their lifespan and reduce the need for virgin resources.

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History of recycled materials

  • Recycling practices can be traced to civilizations such as the ancient Egyptians, who recycled papyrus to create new writing surfaces, and the Romans, who reused metals and glass. These early examples of recycling were driven by practical necessity and the scarcity of resources in certain regions.
  • Industrial Revolution: The concept of recycling experienced a notable resurgence during the Industrial Revolution, driven by the rapid urbanization that led to a substantial increase in waste generation. The confluence of growing urban populations and heightened waste output compelled the establishment of waste management and recycling systems, with a particular focus on water and solid waste, to maintain sanitation standards. Furthermore, in the pre-mass production era, materials such as metals and paper held significant value and were actively collected and repurposed. During this period, the benefits of recycling were predominantly associated with public health and economic advantages, rather than being primarily motivated by environmental considerations.
  • Modern Recycling Movement: The modern recycling movement gained significant momentum in the mid-20th century as concerns about waste management, resource depletion, and environmental pollution grew.

TL;DR

5% - 38% - 31% is the percentage of plastic recycled in the United States (2021), European Union (2020) and China (2020), respectively.

The numbers indicate the effort of recycling has been noticed in parts of the world while distributed unevenly across the world. The numbers are relatively low implying high potential and space for improvement, but require efforts.

Benefits of Recycled Materials

benefits of recycling

Resource conservation

By using recycled materials, industries decrease the need for extracting and processing virgin resources like minerals, metals, and timber. This helps conserve natural resources, such as forests, minerals, and fossil fuels, reducing environmental impact and habitat destruction.

Energy savings

The production of recycled materials typically consumes less energy compared to manufacturing new materials from scratch. For example, aluminum is an energy-intensive material to produce from its primary source, bauxite ore.

  • The extraction and refining of bauxite into aluminum metal require significant energy inputs. To obtain aluminum from bauxite ore, the Bayer process and the Hall-Héroult process are used. These processes involve mining, refining, and smelting, all of which demand substantial energy. The energy consumption for primary aluminum production can be quite high.
  • On the other hand, when aluminum is recycled from used products or scrap, the energy requirements are considerably lower. When aluminum products, such as beverage cans or aluminum siding, are recycled, they are melted down and reprocessed. This recycling process consumes significantly less energy than the primary production process because it skips the energy-intensive steps of refining bauxite and smelting aluminum from scratch.
  • The energy savings achieved through aluminum recycling can be substantial—up to 95% less energy is required to recycle aluminum compared to primary production. (3)

Reduced landfill waste

Utilizing recycled materials diverts waste from landfills, which in turn helps conserve valuable landfill space and prolong the life of existing landfill sites. For example, recycling plastic bottles diverts a significant portion of plastic waste away from landfills. Instead of being discarded in landfills and taking hundreds of years to decompose, these bottles are collected, processed, and transformed into new plastic items.

Challenges of Recycled Materials

Limited Availability

High-quality recycled materials may have limited availability.

For example, in the construction industry, there is limited availability of high-quality recycled steel reinforcement bars (rebar). Rebar is essential for reinforcing concrete structures. While recycled rebar is eco-friendly and in demand, the supply may be constrained because it relies on the availability of scrap steel from demolished buildings or structures. This limited supply can pose challenges for construction projects that prioritize recycled materials. (4)

Limited Material Diversity

May not meet all material property requirements.

For example, certain products high-end cosmetics or pharmaceuticals, demand packaging materials with exceptional clarity and transparency to showcase the product's quality. Recycled plastics may have inherent variations in transparency due to their source materials, making them less suitable for such applications.

In such cases, manufacturers may opt for virgin plastics that offer consistent optical properties and meet the stringent quality standards required for premium packaging. (5)

Technical Challenges

Industries may face technical challenges in incorporating recycled materials.

For example, the electronics industry faces challenges when integrating recycled materials into high-tech devices. Recycled metals, such as those from electronic waste (e-waste), need to meet strict purity and quality standards to ensure product reliability. Achieving these standards can be technically challenging and may require advanced recycling techniques.

Production Costs

Recycling processes can be expensive.

For example, in the furniture manufacturing industry, recycled wood can be costlier to produce compared to using new wood. Recycling wood involves cleaning, de-nailing, and re-milling, which require energy, labor, and specialized equipment. These processes contribute to higher production costs, impacting the overall affordability of eco-friendly furniture. (6)

Market Competition

Competition from cheaper virgin materials can affect competitiveness.

For example, in the packaging industry, manufacturers often face competition from products made with virgin plastics, which can be cheaper due to the availability of abundant raw materials.

Recycled plastic packaging may be priced slightly higher due to the recycling process and limited supply of high-quality recycled plastic. This price difference can impact a product's competitiveness in the market, particularly in price-sensitive segments.

challenges with recycling

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References