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The importance and benefits of recycling

The benefits of recycling are very well known and documented. Recycling contributes to sustainable development of economic, environmental and social point of view. It is the most comprehensive approach of waste management since it achieves economic benefits; it contributes to tackling environmental problems and it ensures social equality and employment.

Economics: These benefits are focused on the value of materials recovered through recycling. The turnover of recycling of the most important materials almost doubled in the period 2004-2008 in the EU (from € 32,5 bn in 60,5 bn €) and falled to 37.2 billion € in 2009 due to the economic recession, although remaining at higher levels than five years ago. The above value underestimates the true economic value of recycling since it does not include activities related to the recycling of the most important materials, nor all recyclables. Metals (iron, steel, aluminum and copper) have the greatest value, followed by paper and cardboard.

Total turnover of recycling of seven key recyclables in the EU, billion € and current price, 2004 and 2006–2009

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Source: Eurostat,EuropeanEnvironmentalAgency

The value of exports of recyclables shows an increasing trend, which is also associated with the growth of Asian economies, particularly in China. For certain recyclable materials such as paper, aluminum and copper, the value of exports is higher in recent years than prior to the economic crisis. Greater is the effect on exports of secondary metals where the rise of international prices resulted in a five-fold increase in the value of their exports in only one decade (2000-2010).

Recycling is an essential key to achieving the EU Strategy for transition to an economy which efficiently utilizes natural resources. Already Eurostat data show that recycling covers the consumption of paper and cardboard by 41%, iron and steel by 42%, aluminum 10%, glass 14% and plastics by 2% (2006 data). There is a potential for even greater involvement of recyclable materials in the production of raw materials such as plastic, glass and various metals. The development of new technologies is essential to improve recycling rates and provides opportunities to develop research and professional innovations.

A critical point is the recovery of rare metals needed for new technologies such as renewable sources of energy. Metals such as indium used in the photovoltaic and flat panel displays, germanium used in fiber optics, the gallium used at circuits etc., are imported in EU and the needs of the renewable energy industry and IT are increased rapidly. The first step in maintaining the competitiveness of the European high technology industry is to increase the recycling of electrical and electronic waste. This type of waste represents a high value stream, due to the rare metal content, and it is estimated that the value of its management will reach 5,6 bn € 2020.

Environmental: The improper disposal of waste into the environment poses many risks which are often not directly perceived. Waste such as batteries and electrical and electronic equipment contain hazardous substances such as lead, mercury, cadmium, etc.and their distribution in the environment has an impact on soil, water, organisms, even in humans. Especially the lubricating oils are considered hazardous to public health. The plastic takes centuries to decompose and its presence can even cause death to aquatic and other organisms. Dispose of glass in landfills near woodlands often causes fires.

Waste management is directly linked to climate change in many ways. The waste which instead of recycled is disposed on landfills, emit during decomposition methane, a greenhouse gas, 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Furthermore the recycling of materials instead of producing raw materials requires less energy and thus smaller amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) are emitted in the atmosphere. In EU, Research conducted by Ökopol calculates that the greenhouse gas savings obtained from the current recycling of municipal solid waste is 160cm. tons of carbon dioxide. This amount corresponds to the total amount produced throughout Greece and Finland together. In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has estimated that the discharge 100 tons of office paper produces 62 tonnes of CO2 while recycling 50 tons of the same paper has reverse effect absorbing three tons of CO2. This estimate is based on life cycle analysis where recycling saves cutting trees and which in turn harvest carbon dioxide.

Effect paper management greenhouse gases generation, expressed in metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent


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Source: EnvironmentalProtectionAgency

Social: Recycling is a key element in creating new jobs. Waste collection, sorting, treatment, dismantling etc. employ more workers than the land disposal of waste. Depending on the material and the country, it is estimated that recycling of the same amount of waste generates 6-10 times more jobs than landfilling or burning. In the EU, it has been estimated that workers in the recycling sector increased from 230,000 in 2000 to 512,000 in 2008, an increase of 10.57% per annum. This increase was the second largest in the eco-industry sector after the renewable energy sector. Specifically for Greece, it is estimated that recycling contributes to around 3,600 full-time jobs.

An additional benefit is the prevention of the waste stream from landfills. Especially, Greece faces saturation problem in existing landfills and social tension in all planning and siting of new landfills. Recycling increases the life-span of existing landfills and distributes the waste sorting costs equally to all residents.