Certain resources are non-renewable and some renew very slowly. Other materials are not naturally occurring or may be rare. Some materials are damaging to the environment or health if disposed of as waste. Substances needed regularly must be used again and again over time. The cycles which bring the needed materials back for reuse must either occur naturally, like the cycles of water and carbon, or they must be maintained through mindful recycling programs.
All countries produce large quantities of agricultural and industrial wastes as well as growing quantities of consumer wastes, none of which are adequately utilized. Common recyclable materials include engine and lubricating oils, plastics, paper, clothes and rags and organic rubbish for use as compost. Any precious, expensive, toxic and hazardous materials are also natural candidates for recycling.
For recycling to offer true environmental benefits, whatever the material involved, a number of factors must be taken into account. Most broadly, the resources used to collect, sort and recycle must be less than those used to produce virgin material. In practice this means (1) post-use waste must be easily collected and sorted; (2) the recycling process itself does not required excessive use of resources to produce recyclate.
Recycling replaces virgin materials in the manufacturing process. For example, recycling aluminium is 95% more efficient than using virgin aluminium, recycling plastic is 85% more efficient, paper 50%, and glass 40%. But the recycling process still consumes energy (and other resources), and costs money. And for many materials, particularly plastic and to some extent paper, recycling is also a downgrading process. These materials can only be recycled a certain number of times before they degrade beyond all use, and generally then end up in landfill. At this point, they can’t be recovered for waste to energy.
In the last decade, recycling rates of many materials have increased substantially in developed countries. Recycling in many developing countries depends foremost on collection by many scavengers along city streets and at dumps. Thus, whilst less than one percent of officially collected municipal solid waste (MCW) in Brazil is recycled, its industry association figures show that 30% of apparent paper consumption is recycled, 49% of its aluminium cans, 20% of glass containers and 20% of plastic soft drink bottles. Outside Western Europe, The USA and Canada, Brazil has the largest number of so called curbside collection programmes.
Developing countries cannot continue to depend infinitely on many of the raw materials that are currently used. Products from the petrochemical industry used as adhesives and binders in the production of increasing numbers of building materials, for example, are becoming too expensive to be used for low-cost construction in many areas. While these limitations affect developed and developing countries equally, ways have not yet been found to utilize fully the enormous amounts of waste produced as substitutes for the expensive imports.
Recycling is just another form of materialism. It simply represents an obsession with excretion as opposed to consumption.