Throwing out the myths: the realities of recycling

The Government’s Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) has been coming to the defence of recycling recently, addressing three key myths that have been circulating in the press.

Myth 1: Collecting and transporting recycling is bad for the environment as it causes CO2 emissions.

According to Dr Liz Goodwin, WRAP’s chief executive, this greatly overstates the emissions associated with transportation. “The impact of collecting and transporting is a tiny fraction of CO2 emissions, equivalent to 0.04 tonnes per tonne of recycled material.”

Dr Goodwin adds: “Current levels of recycling in the UK save 18 million tonnes of CO2 per year. This is equivalent to flying the population of Northern Ireland to Australia and back twice.”

Myth 2: Recycling is a waste of time – there are better alternatives such as burning waste.

This is not true either, apparently. For all combustible materials except wood, more energy is saved by recycling than is recovered by incineration. WRAP’s figures show that burning plastic recovers between 5 and 12 MJ energy, compared to 100MJ required to make the plastic in the first place, and 12-20 MJ saved by recycling the plastic. For paper and card, the energy saved by recycling is double that recovered by incineration.

Dr Goodwin comments: “There is a role for energy-from-waste, but it should not be the starting point – we should be trying to recycle as much as we can before burning.”

Myth 3: There is no benefit to recycling if it goes abroad

Again, the transport of recycling is relatively unimportant here, according to WRAP. “The emissions caused by transporting materials amounts to less than a third of the emissions saved” even if the material is sent to China.

For example, Craig Simmons of Best Foot Forward, a carbon footprinting consultancy, highlights that recycling a tonne of glass saves over 300kg of CO2, and that “the difference between exporting to Europe or the Far East is only 30kgCO2/tonne”, or a tenth of the overall carbon saving.

So recycling makes carbon sense, then. But in discussing these figures, WRAP also dispelled a further myth:

Myth 4: Recycling reduces the UK’s carbon emissions.

It doesn’t, unfortunately, because of the system of national carbon accounts that countries currently use to calculate their emissions.

To illustrate this point, Dr Goodwin uses the example of a tonne of aluminium, manufactured in South America. Using virgin materials releases 11 tonnes of CO2 in the manufacturing process, whereas recycling the aluminium only releases two tonnes. That’s a nine tonne saving for a tonne of aluminium. “The problem is that the CO2 accounting system is national not global, so that the nine tonnes are orphaned tonnes.”

The concept of ‘orphaned tonnes’ needs a bit of explaining. The UK’s emissions will actually rise by two tonnes if the aluminium is recycled domestically, and the primary producer of aluminium (Brazil, say) will not record an emissions reduction because they have not produced the recycled aluminium at all. So the nine tonnes of saved CO2 will be ‘orphaned’, not counting towards any country’s carbon reduction targets.

(It must be noted, however, that Brazil’s emissions will be 11 tonnes lower than if the aluminium had not been recycled because, presumably, the UK will buy a tonne less aluminium from Brazilian producers.)

All this means that, from the UK’s perspective, recycling contributes little to carbon reduction targets, because the UK imports so much of its raw materials. Perhaps the plight of orphaned tonnes will twinge policymakers’ heartstrings and lead to a reform of the carbon accounting systems to remove such anomalies?