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The UK produces 26 million tonnes of waste per year. About 14 million tonnes end up on landfill sites. These smelly and unsightly rubbish dumps are very bad for the environment. Landfill sites release greenhouse gases and affect local plants, soil and animals. They can also be dangerous to humans - these sites are prone to accidents and fires. How can we reduce the amount of waste ending up in landfill sites? One method is recycling - an imperfect solution that has many environmental and social benefits.

The Definition of Recycling

What exactly is recycling? It is a process that is a more sustainable alternative to the conventional waste management disposal system by helping to save material that would otherwise end up in landfill or air pollution through incineration (burning of waste).

Recycling is the process of converting waste materials into new reusable objects.

Whether something can be recycled depends on its recyclability. This is essentially the ability of whether the material can reacquire its original properties. With this in mind, recycling can potentially have environmental, social and economic benefits.

England currently recycles 44% of its waste but aims to increase this to 50%.

Things which can currently be recycled in England include:

  • Paper and card

  • Plastic food containers, such as tubs and bottles

  • Glass

  • Metal packaging

  • Cartons

  • Food waste

The Recycling Process

From street collection to becoming a new plastic bottle, your household waste goes through a complex journey.

  • First, recyclable materials are collected and separated. This stage often starts in people's homes.

    Do your local recycling services ask you to keep glass and cardboard separate?

  • Different waste materials are deposited into separate recycling bins or boxes.

    Plastics and aluminium cans are typically collected together.

  • Once collected, the recyclable materials are converted back into raw materials.

  • For the final step, raw materials are converted into a finished product.

Recycling plastic bottles StudySmarterPlastics and aluminium cans are typically collected together,

Examples of Recycling

There are many different types of recycling; it all depends on the material being recycled. Here we explore three types of recycling: mechanical, energy and chemical.

Mechanical Recycling

Mechanical recycling transforms waste materials into new products without changing their chemical composition. This type of recycling uses processes such as grinding, washing and compounding. The waste materials can be used again and again in new products.

Mechanical recycling is commonly used to recycle Polyolefin plastics. These highly versatile plastics are used in food packaging, cling film and plastic crates.

Metals are mechanically recycled by melting them down and recasting or reforming them into different products. The metals often require separation, depending on the properties necessary for the final product.

Mechanical metal recycling can cut down the need for new raw materials.

For example, scrap steel is added to iron in a blast furnace to reduce the amount of iron that needs to be extracted from ores.

Recycling metals like iron means these materials can be reused, saving energy and reducing the impact on the environment as fewer mines and quarries are needed to extract the finite reserves of metal ores.

Energy Recycling

This recycling method converts plastics into thermal and electrical energy via incineration (burning). Waste incineration plants use catalysers to prevent pollutants and emissions from being released into the atmosphere, which makes this recycling method environmentally friendly.

This process is viable because it reduces waste and the need for non-renewable energy sources like fossil fuels.

Waste materials high in energy, such as wood and plastics, are commonly burnt for energy recycling.

Chemical Recycling

This is the most complex method of recycling. After reprocessing plastics, their chemical structure is modified, reducing the requirements for raw materials.

Most chemical recycling is still in the experimental stage. However, professors at the University of Birmingham have discovered that mixing PET plastics with alcohol allows them to be recycled.

Facts About Recycling

Impress your friends and family with these fun recycling facts!

  • It takes 95% less energy to recycle aluminium cans than to make new ones. In fact, 75% of all aluminium ever produced is still in use today!

  • The UK throws away enough wrapping paper every Christmas to cover 11,000 football pitches.

  • The UK uses 7.7 billion plastic bottles annually - equivalent to 117 per person.

  • The average UK household throws away 20% of their weekly food shop.

Recycling recycling logo StudySmarterThe recognisable three arrows logo indicates if a product can be recycled,

Benefits of Recycling to Society and the Environment

As well as preventing waste from ending up in landfills, recycling provides many benefits to society and the environment.

Here's an overview of the benefits of recycling.

  • Recycling reduces the demand for raw materials, helping to conserve natural resources.

  • It helps wildlife and nature by protecting biodiversity, it reduces the need to obtain new ores through mining which destroys habitats.

  • Less waste is in hazardous landfill sites.

  • Making products from recycled materials saves energy, thus cutting carbon emissions.

  • Recycling is usually cheaper than waste disposal.

  • Fewer fossil fuels are needed to make new materials, like plastics.

  • The recycling industry provides green jobs.

Some factors and decisions can affect recycling. It can be challenging to encourage people to change their behaviour, especially if the change involves perceived effort. What factors can influence decisions on recycling?

  • Personal attitudes
  • Local policies and schemes
  • Environmental awareness
  • Convenience (e.g. location of bins)
  • Age

Benefits of Recycling Plastic

Plastic is a hugely versatile material that has revolutionised modern life. However, some plastics can take up to 1000 years to decompose in landfill sites, resulting in large amounts of waste. If plastic waste ends up in a watercourse, it can flow out to sea.

Once in the ocean, the natural elements erode plastic waste into small fragments known as microplastics. These have spread worldwide and can even be found in drinking water.

Plastics and microplastic fragments are incredibly harmful to animals. They might get entangled and suffocated by plastics or experience internal damage from consuming them.

Increasing plastic recycling is vital to prevent plastic from ending up in the ocean and harming animals. Recently, numerous companies have cut down on single-use plastics. Some food shops have zero waste refill aisles, while some fast-food chains have banned plastic straws.

Recycling marine plastic pollution StudySmarterMarine plastic pollution near Indonesia,

Negative Effects of Recycling on the Environment

Despite its significant benefits, recycling waste is not a perfect solution to the problems of pollution and landfill.

Like manufacturing products from scratch, recycling also uses energy. If this energy comes from non-renewable resources like fossil fuels, it can contribute to carbon emissions. Energy may also be needed to speed up the difficult process of sorting materials.

Electromagnets are often used to separate metals.

Certain types of recycling release pollutants. Electronic recycling, in particular, is notorious for contaminating local environments. Old electronic devices are frequently shipped overseas to be sorted manually. During this process, metal and chemicals leach into land and water, affecting the local environment and residents.

Informal electronic waste (e-waste for short) recycling is common in Africa. Without formal legislation and protocols, informal e-waste recycling threatens people's health and local ecosystems. Increased levels of e-waste pollutants have been found in nearby environments and the human body. Traces have been found in blood, urine, and breast milk.

'Reduce, Reuse, Recycle'

Some environmentalists have argued that 'reducing' and 'reusing' are actually better for the environment than recycling. If we reduce our consumption and reuse what we already have, less energy and resources will be used to manufacture and recycle these products.

Recycling - Key takeaways

  • Recycling is the process of converting waste materials into new objects. It has environmental, economic and social benefits.
  • There are three types of recycling: mechanical, energy and chemical.
  • Recycling reduces the demand for raw materials and energy, helping to conserve resources and protect the environment. It saves money and provides jobs.
  • Plastic takes a long time to decompose, often ending up in the ocean or as microplastics. These can harm animals.
  • Recycling is not a perfect solution to waste - it uses energy and can emit pollutants. Reducing and reusing our consumption may be better for the environment.

1. Amelia Josephson, The Pros and Cons of Recycling, 2018

2. Brad Smith, What are the 3 types of Recycling?, 2020

3. Friends of the Earth, 7 benefits of recycling, 2018

4. Laura Parker, The world's plastic pollution crisis explained, National Geographic, 2019

5. Orish Ebere Orisakwe, Public Health Burden of E-waste in Africa, Journal of Health and Pollution, 2019

6. Plastics Europe, Polyolefins, 2022

7., Recycling Facts, 2022

8. Rick LeBlanc, How long does it take garbage to decompose, The Balance, 2017

9. Sustainability for All, Landfills: A Serious Problem for the Environment, 2022

10. Unisan, What Can and Can’t Be Recycled? Recycling Guide, 2020

11. University of Birmingham, A scalable process for the chemical recycling of PET using ionic organocatalysts, 2021

12. U.S. Energy Information Administration, Waste-to-energy (Municipal Solid Waste), 2021

Frequently Asked Questions about Recycling

Recycling helps to conserve natural resources, protect wildlife and nature, and saves energy.

We can recycle paper and card, plastic food containers, glass, metal packaging, cartons and food waste.

The three types of recycling are mechanical, energy and chemical.

Recycling is good for the environment, but it is not perfect. It requires energy to convert the waste products. Certain types of recycling, such as electronics, can release pollutants.

Plastic bottles can take up to 1000 years to decompose. If they reach the ocean, they can be eroded into microplastics, which spread around the world and affect animals.

Final Recycling Quiz


What is recycling?

Show answer


Recycling is the process of converting waste materials into new objects.

Show question


What is mechanical recycling?

Show answer


Mechanical recycling transforms waste materials into new products without changing their chemical composition.

Show question


What is energy recycling?

Show answer


This recycling method converts plastics into thermal and electrical energy via incineration.

Show question


What is chemical recycling?

Show answer


Chemical recycling modifies the chemical structure of plastics.

Show question


How much of England's waste is currently recycled?

Show answer



Show question


How long does it take some plastics to decompose?

Show answer


It takes some plastics up to 1000 years to decompose.

Show question


Recycling reduces the demand for raw materials. True or false?

Show answer



Show question


Which of these is not a stage of recycling?

Show answer


Repackaging the product

Show question


Recycling is more expensive than waste disposal. True or false?

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Show question


Recycling is free from energy and pollutants. True or false?

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Show question


What are microplastics?

Show answer


Microplastics are small fragments of plastic waste that have been eroded in the oceans.

Show question


How can plastics and microplastics affect animals?

Show answer


Animals might get entangled and suffocated by plastics, or experience internal damage from consuming them.

Show question


What type of recycling is notorious for contaminating local ecosystems?

Show answer


Electronic recycling

Show question


Why is reducing and reusing good for the environment?

Show answer


Reducing our consumption and reusing products results in less energy and resources used for manufacturing and recycling.

Show question


Which type of recycling is still in the experimental stage?

Show answer


Chemical recycling

Show question

More about Recycling

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