Why recycling remains important in a circular economy

By Lucy Jones  November 4th, 2021

It is critical to understand both the limitations of recycling and the opportunities it provides.

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The circular economy is not just about recycling or managing waste. This is a phrase that is oft repeated by people working in the circular economy space. And, in a country that is still at the very beginning of its circular economy journey where much of our circular economy policy remains tied to resource management, it is one that resonates. However, just because you can’t boil the circular economy down to recycling doesn’t mean recycling isn't an important part of building a more circular and sustainable society. 

Recycling forms one of many smaller loops of a circular economy, alongside reuse, repair, remanufacturing and sharing. It is often referred to as a 'last order process' of the circular economy, offering solutions for waste that cannot be designed out of the system or cycled higher up the food chain.   

"In a properly built circular economy, one should rather focus on avoiding the recycling stage at all costs. It may sound straightforward, but preventing waste from being created in the first place is the only realistic strategy," the World Economic Forum writes.   

The circular economy prioritises solutions that design out waste and pollution at the source, reducing the need for recycling. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, interventions made during the design phase can address a whopping 80 per cent of a product’s environmental impacts.  

While designing waste and pollution out from the beginning of a product’s life is the ideal scenario, it currently isn’t viable in many cases and even in a fully circular economy there will a need for material recycling. This means recycling has a critical role to play in finding new uses for resources that would otherwise end up in landfill and reducing reliance on virgin material extraction and the associated environmental impacts.  

As the clip below suggests, it's less about removing recycling and more about rethinking what, when and how we recycle.    

Here in Australia, there are many examples of recycling projects that are embracing the circular economy to dramatically reduce the impacts of materials and industries. BINGO Industries is one. The company recovers Construction and Demolition and Commercial and Industrial waste — sectors that together are responsible for about three quarters of all waste in Australia — and processes them into new materials.  

"When you throw away demolition waste, carbon emissions are released into our atmosphere as the waste breaks down. This means you lose all the embodied energy that was used to create the original building products. On top of this, you also miss out on a considerable cost saving," BINGO's Head of Sustainability, Nik Comito, explains.  

"Rather than sending materials to landfill, we started developing the infrastructure needed to sort and recover waste and remanufacture recycled products. From the materials we process, we produce our ECO Product range of recycled aggregate, road base, mulch and cleaned sand and soils."

Other examples range from hair salons diverting plastic, aluminium and foil from landfill to old school uniforms being recycled into new desks for students and printer cartridges being turned into roads. These projects show that recycling can help us come up with innovative solutions for major waste and pollution challenges and give materials a useful second life as new products.  

A truly circular economy is the sum of its parts — recycling included. Working together with reuse, sharing, redesign, remanufacturing and so on, recycling projects can help to close loops on products and materials and, eventually, eliminate the word waste from our vocabularies.  

With National Recycling Week celebrating its 25th anniversary next week, it is a timely reminder to reflect on the positive impacts of recycling initiatives, the progress Australia's resource management sector has made over the last quarter century and the small ways that we can all contribute. Saving resources from landfill by recycling at home or work is one of the ways we can all be more circular in our daily lives.   

Learn more and get involved by visiting nationalrecyclingweek.com.au.  

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Lucy Jones

Lucy started her career working as a writer and editor in print and digital publishing. She went on to create content for Australia's leading sustainable fashion platform while completing her Master of Cultural Studies. Lucy spends her downtime at the beach, crocheting and hanging out with her cat Larry. She believes words can change the world and is stoked to help Planet Ark spread the message of positive environmental change.

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