Recycling has become a almost unchallenged virtue of the environmental movement. Millions of people sort out their paper, plastics and metals for pickup at their curbside. Countries such as Austria, the Netherlands, and Germany recycle over half of their rubbish. However, recently some reservations have been expressed whether recycling always results in a net benefit.
China is a huge part of the market recycled paper and plastics. Shipping tons of refuse thousands of miles to China to be recycled might produce more CO2 than shipping them to a landfill. The recent economic downturn has lessened China's demand for recycled materials causing some of it to pile up on the docks.
Recently, some have argued that oil based materials such as plastics are more efficiently disposed of by incineration.
Some efforts are being made to process more recycled material locally, saving money and energy. Britain is building three new plastics reprocessing plants that will be able to handle most of the 180,000 tons of recycled plastic bottles recycled each year. An anaerobic digester will soon digest 80,000 tons a year of discarded food from the supermarkets in Sainsbury, England. The process generates a mixture of carbon dioxide and methane that is burnt for heat and power. The new process will save several million pounds a year in disposal costs.
The process of recycling is somewhat more complicated than first thought. Maximizing the benefits of recycling requires planning for how the materials will be used, and ultimately even planning when products are constructed to lessen the time and energy necessary to separate materials when the product is recycled.