Apart from aluminium, the stuff we supposedly recycle isn’t recycled at all – it’s mostly downcycled. Even aluminium is only recycled to a limited degree.
Downcycling is the process of converting waste materials or useless products into new materials or products of lesser quality and reduced functionality. Wikipedia.
In general, domestic sources of waste plastic cannot be recycled. Most domestic waste plastic comes from food containers and for various technical and regulatory reasons it cannot be recycled into new food containers. Many plastics such as the almost ubiquitous polyethylene terephthalate (PET) used to make drinks bottles have too many additives for it to be feasible to melt the stuff down and recycle the melt into new bottles. It wouldn’t work.
However, PET can be reduced to flake, spun into polyester yarn and the yarn can be made into clothing such as fleece jackets. This isn’t recycling, but downcycling. There is no way back to virgin plastic.
Paper and card.
Paper and card contain fibres usually derived from wood. As these materials are reused, the fibres tend to break up and shorten in length so that the reused material is not as strong as the original. So ‘recycled’ paper and card have virgin material added to the mix to preserve their properties. It’s recycling of a sort, but not dissimilar to downcycling in that the paper fibres cannot survive the process in their original state.
Aluminium, particularly drinks cans, can be recycled, by melting them down to pure aluminium using considerably less energy than making aluminium from the ore. In the UK we only recycle about 50% of our cans, but even so, there is still that energy saving, which is probably the real value in recycling aluminium. Fewer cans in landfill too. This is genuine recycling.
Glass was recycled in the old days when returnable milk and beer bottles were the norm, but not so much now. In general, much recycled glass is actually downcycled into construction materials.
So why do we recycle?
Recycling as we probably all know, is a complex issue riddled with politics and propaganda. It may well be that the most cost-effective way to deal with domestic waste is to incinerate it, but environmental pressures render objective analysis of costs, benefits and externalities particularly difficult.
I recycle and don't mind doing it, but that's because I have been conditioned to dislike waste and recycling feels right. It may not be the best solution, but it feels right to me, as I suspect it does to many others.
Yet my impression, is that recycling is mostly a political project. Another way to get behavioural control into the home and the classroom. Pointless drill.
A move in the game.