To produce new products from recovered materials requires fewer raw resources and less energy. That’s how recycling household, commercial, and industrial waste can cut emissions.
Waste production multiplied tenfold over the last century and will likely double again by 2025. Half or less of that waste is generated at the household level. Though the mix varies widely from place to place, in high-income countries paper, plastic, glass, and metal comprise more than 50 percent of the waste stream—all prime candidates for recycling.
Recycling can reduce emissions because producing new products from recovered materials often saves energy. Forging recycled aluminum products, for example, uses 95 percent less energy than creating them from virgin materials.
Managing household waste tends to be the responsibility of city governments, or of informal waste collection in lower-income cities. Leading cities achieve recycling rates of 65 percent or more. Effective strategies go beyond raising public awareness and include:
- fees for landfill waste, while recycling and composting are free;
- redeemable deposits paid at purchase (from bottles to electronics); and
- programs that gather funds from manufacturers to cover recycling costs.
Collection, transport, and processing are, for the time being, largely powered by fossil fuels. Even still, recycling remains an effective approach to managing waste while addressing emissions. It also reduces resource extraction, minimizes other pollutants, and creates jobs.
At least half of waste is industrial and commercial. Sources range from manufacturing, construction, and mines to restaurants, office buildings, and schools. The stream of waste they produce is diverse; not all of it can find a second life, but much can. Industrial and commercial recycling reduces emissions when new products are made from recovered materials, rather than virgin resources.
A suite of strategies can enhance recycling rates:
- Extended producer responsibility laws make companies responsible for managing goods post-use—an incentive to make products that are longer lasting, easier to fix, and as recyclable as possible.
- Marketplaces for secondary materials facilitate the exchange of recyclable and reusable goods.
- Innovation in conversion technologies makes more materials recyclable.
- Circular business models transform the dominant industrial approach of take, make, waste—recapturing “waste” as a valuable resource.
Recycling needs to be one piece of an integrated approach, that also includes making more efficient use of materials and extending product life. Together, they can reduce emissions from extracting, transporting, and processing raw materials. Because society currently uses far more of these materials far more quickly than the earth can regenerate, such practices address parallel challenges of resource scarcity.