Empty glass bottles in a crate, waiting to be returned for reuse/recycling

7 benefits of recycling

From the pollution produced by landfills to the devastating effects of plastic in our oceans, we urgently need to stem the flow of rubbish pouring into our environment. Here's a reminder of why recycling is such a good thing – for you and the planet.
  Published:  29 Mar 2018    |      Last updated:  05 Sep 2022    |      3 minute read

We need to drastically improve our recycling habits at home, in schools and in our workplaces. 

The UK government has a target to recycle 65% of municipal waste by 2035 but we've got a long way to go to reach that goal – currently, the UK's recycling rate is about 45%. 

We need to remember that recycling is crucial to the future health of our planet. Here are 7 reasons why...

1. Conserves natural resources

The world's natural resources are finite, and some are in very short supply.

At a basic level:

  • Recycling paper and wood saves trees and forests. Yes, you can plant new trees, but you can't replace virgin rainforest or ancient woodlands once they're lost. 
  • Recycling plastic means creating less new plastic, which is definitely a good thing, especially as it's usually made from fossil fuel hydrocarbons.
  • Recycling metals means there's less need for risky, expensive and damaging mining and extraction of new metal ores.
  • Recycling glass reduces the need to use new raw materials like sand – it sounds hard to believe, but supplies of some types of sand are starting to get low around the world.
Heap of empty, squashed plastic bottles ready for recycling
Even recycled plastic is still plastic, at the end of the day
Credit: Streetwise Cycle/Wikimedia Commons

2. Protects ecosystems and wildlife

Recycling reduces the need to grow, harvest or extract new raw materials from the Earth.

That in turn lessens the harmful disruption and damage being done to the natural world: fewer forests cut down, rivers diverted, wild animals harmed or displaced, and less pollution of water, soil and air. 

And of course if our plastic waste isn't safely put in the recycling, it can be blown or washed into rivers and seas and end up hundreds or thousands of miles away, polluting coastlines and waterways and becoming a problem for everyone. 

3. Reduces demand for raw materials

The world's increasing demand for new stuff has led to more of the poorest and most vulnerable people (for example, those living around forests or river systems) being displaced from their homes, or otherwise exploited. Forest communities can find themselves evicted as a result of the search for cheap timber and rivers can be damned or polluted by manufacturing waste.

It's far better to recycle existing products than to damage someone else's community or land in the search for new raw materials.

photo of cut timber batons in store
Credit: Juanmonino/iStock

4. Saves energy 

Making products from recycled materials requires less energy than making them from new raw materials. Sometimes it's a huge difference in energy. For example:

  • Producing new aluminium from old products (including recycled cans and foil) uses 95% less energy than making it from scratch. For steel it's about a 70% energy saving.
  • Making paper from pulped recycled paper uses 40% less energy than making it from virgin wood fibres. 
  • The amount of energy saved from recycling one glass bottle could power an old 100-watt light bulb for 4 hours and a new low-energy LED equivalent for a lot longer.

5. Cuts climate-changing carbon emissions

Because recycling means you need to use less energy on sourcing and processing new raw materials, it produces lower carbon emissions. It also keeps potentially methane-releasing waste out of landfill sites. 

Reducing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases being emitted into the atmosphere is vital for stopping disastrous climate change.

6. Cheaper than waste collection and disposal

Lambeth council in London pointed out that "it is 6 times cheaper to dispose of recycled waste than general refuse." So, the more you recycle, and the less you put in the bin, the more money is saved, which should be good for households, businesses and local public services.

Recycling food waste and green waste is a great idea too, often generating lots of valuable compost that can be used to grow more food and other crops. 

Worker collecting recycling, emptying bin
Emerge Recycling, Manchester
Credit: www.johnbirdsall.co.uk

7. Tackles youth unemployment 

There are over 500,000 young people aged 16-24 out of work. 

Instead of propping up declining, polluting industries, the government must future-proof livelihoods by investing in more green jobs.

Right now, young people are being taught and given careers advice on jobs that may not even exist in 10 years' time. We're setting them up to fail where we could be training them to succeed.

Youth strikers at the Global Climate Strike, 20 September 2019

If in doubt, remember those three Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

The truth is we all need to get into the habit of using less stuff in the first place. And the things we do use ought to be reused as much as possible before being recycled, to minimise waste.

This would significantly aid the response to the global waste management challenge, which has seen many countries in the Global South unfairly shoulder the responsibility of managing the waste of countries in the Global North. The question of what to do with waste is one that governments cannot ignore. 

It's important that we combine our efforts to manage our waste with increased calls for tougher government action on reducing plastic waste.