14.1 Waste: Recycling

Author: Kara Rotermund

ABSTRACT: Recycling is an industrial practice, operating within an open loop system. Before this method of waste reduction can function at its most efficient to successfully reduce carbon emissions and waste, we must examine our current model of production and alternative methods.

Figure 14.1. Image credit: Worrell, E., & Reuter, M. (01/01/2014).


Discerning how recycling fits into the current production model, is foundational in understanding how it can function to reduce carbon emissions. The current model of production is best described as cradle-to-grave (McDonough & Braungart, 2002). This linear model, outlined in Figure 14.1, begins with extracting of resources, followed by creation of product, consumption, and disposal. Products have a built-in lifecycle, at the end of which they become waste. This is known as built in obsolescence. In the extraction of resources phase, obtaining most virgin materials requires outsourcing, involving methods of transportation which produce carbon emissions. The demand for materials continues to increase, but earth only has a limited supply of these virgin materials. Creating the product also requires energy, most commonly from nonrenewable sources, where water contamination is also an issue. In the disposal phase, methods are incineration or landfill, both of which release carbon stored in materials back into the environment.

Most recycling today, is actually down-cycling, and feeds into this current model of production. Down-cycling is when materials are recycled by being mixed with other materials for reuse, and functions as an open loop system. This lowers the material’s quality, changing its properties, and lowering its value and use potential. With certain materials, such as plastic, additives are required to recreate the desired strength, meaning this recycled plastic often has more additives than virgin plastic. There is no guarantee that by changing the material’s properties, the recycled material will return to its primary production system.

Within our current production model, recycling waste is collected by the city or municipality and sorted based on quality, purity, and contamination. The rejects are sent to landfills. In Toronto alone, 30% of recycled material goes straight to landfills due to contamination (Zettler, 2019). Contamination can be caused by food, non-recyclables, or other materials such as clothing. The materials that remain, which are deemed ‘recyclable’ are sold on a trading market for purchase. The price of these materials can sometimes match or exceed that of the virgin material, making it less desirable to manufacturers. Overall, the value of the act of recycling is determined by this market.

As with all modern environmental practices, there are advantages and disadvantages. With recycling, we see materials designed with a specific lifecycle in mind, have their life cycle increased. By increasing the lifecycle of carbon containing materials such as plastic, and avoiding incineration and landfill, CO2 emissions are decreased. As well, producers who normally source raw materials can now source recycled materials. The energy needed to recycle is typically less than that needed to produce and source raw materials. Contrarily to these advantages, if a product is not intended to be recycled, doing so can create more damage than having done nothing. By recycling operating within the current production system rather than dismantling and redesigning it, it is not a good long-term solution. It can also be less aesthetic, which makes it less desirable to producers and consumers. In addition, transportation to non-local processing facilities is part of recycling’s hidden carbon footprint. Lastly, it results in tons of unusable waste, typically compounds, with no value.

Alternatively, products need to be designed to be recycled, preferably by the manufacturer who made them. If we design packaging to be recycled by nature, it can be safely littered and benefit the environment. Products with a higher embodied carbon should be prioritized and paired with logical recycling technology. In favour of doing more with less, we must reduce and reuse before recycling. Another alternative is to implement a refund system for recyclable packaging, which has already been seen successful in some countries. It is also extremely important that we create a closed loop, which means no change in material properties when recycling. A closed loop is achieved when a material is recycled within the same system from which it was first produced, without down-cycling. To truly close the loop, we must look to natural ecosystems, how they behave and their material resources.

In conclusion, if recycling takes place within a closed loop system, it is more beneficial to the reduction of carbon than disposal. However, recycling is still an industrial practice, and is part of the “less bad” model (McDonough & Braungart, 2002). In today’s society, the benefit of recycling is highly exaggerated, and though well intentioned, can actually be more damaging in some cases. At best, recycling has a lot of potential and room for improvement.


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Kara Rotermund is a third-year interior design student at Ryerson University. As a designer, she is interested in residential and environmental design, and ideally the marriage of the two towards a sustainable future that begins at home. Her goal is to leave a ‘handprint’ on the planet and the design world, that exceeds her carbon ‘footprint’.

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