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Tuesday 12th December 2023

Waste management is a significant weapon in the fight against climate change. Contributing to 3% of global greenhouse emissions, the impact of humanity's wasteful habits is hard to ignore. In the UK alone, almost 100 billion plastic pieces are thrown away yearly (Jonah Fisher, 2022). Plastic that continuously pollutes our oceans and soil; only 9% of plastic is successfully recycled. This waste is incredibly damaging to wildlife and natural ecosystems; many animals and marine life consume plastic waste to their detriment, and environmental contamination has been shown to contribute to human diseases such as cancer, birth defects, asthma, and more (A Downs, R Acevedo, K Humble, 2019). The waste management industry stands as the gatekeeper between the production of materials and those same materials causing environmental damage; what we choose to do as an industry has a significant impact on efforts to curb the effects of human activity on the environment.

Globe on fire

One significant issue is landfills. Landfill waste is a major source of methane production, a greenhouse gas much more potent than carbon dioxide that contributes significantly to ozone depletion and air pollution. This happens when waste is broken down by bacteria in a process known as anaerobic decay, meaning it is broken down without oxygen; it is during this process that methane and carbon dioxide are produced (BBC). As of 2018, a quarter of waste in the UK (14 million tonnes) was sent to landfill, because of its (short-term) convenience and low cost (Clive Harris, 2022). While Recorra does not send any of the materials we collect to landfills, it is still an unfortunately widespread practice across the country. 

Another way waste contributes to climate change is through burning waste for energy. Energy from waste (EfW) facilities receives all types of waste, from recyclable food and paper to general waste. Waste is often incinerated to reduce the amount sent to landfill; when burnt, it also does not produce methane emissions. Such facilities, however, still exact an environmental cost. Burning waste still releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and because EfW facilities cannot choose which materials they receive, this can result in the incineration of plastic materials. Burning plastic alone releases as much as 2.9kg of CO2 for every kilogram of plastic burned (Ian Williams, 2015).

Once materials enter general waste, it is extremely hard to control what happens to them or reduce their impact on the environment. This is why it is important to extend the life cycles of all materials for as long as possible. Reducing waste through recycling also reduces our need for virgin material extraction, another damaging practice that contributes to deforestation, soil erosion, and habitat destruction globally, weakening the planet’s natural carbon capture and storage capabilities. The more waste streams we can recycle, the more efficiently we can divert materials from waste and find new uses for used items.

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