Recycling Benefits Vs Transport Impacts: globalisation makes Life Cycle Thinking a Necessity

The rise of recycling rates in developed countries and the contemporary growth of China and other big Asian economies have created a global transfer network for recyclable materials. Only in 2007, 4.7 million tones of recovered paper and half a million tones of recovered plastics were exported from UK.

Everyone who is involved, even a little bit, in Solid Waste Management and Life Cycle Thinking, knows very well that there are two major findings:

· Recycling is useless without a facility, even far away located, to receive recyclables and drove them back to a new Life Cycle loop.
· The results of Life Cycle Analysis are strongly depended on the geographical boundaries of the system because for some materials regional, national or even continental borders are not enough to materialize the actual benefits of recycling.

As the Climate Change factor got more and more important in decision making, it became clear that the more the distance of transfer the less the global benefits from recycling. Due to the globalization process and the differential requirements for raw and secondary materials between developed and developing countries, a new question emerges: is it worth to recycle if the actual close of the material life-cycle loop will be thousands miles away?

Although we can be quite sure regarding the benefits of recycling, it is a question whether those benefits are traded - off if we take into consideration the CO2 emissions from recyclables transfer for thousands miles.

Trying to answer to that question is not a simple task, but under certain assumptions and limitations WRAP provided an answer in the new report:

“CO2 impacts of transporting the UK’s recovered paper and plastic bottles to China”

The report is available at http://www.wrap.org.uk/

The major finding is that CO2 emissions associated with transporting one tone of recovered paper from the UK to China are estimated to lie between 154kg and 213kg of CO2. The emissions associated with CO2 impacts of transporting the UK’s recovered paper and plastic bottles to China 4 transporting one tone of recovered plastic bottles range between 158kg and 230kg of CO2. These CO2 emissions levels represent less than a third of the carbon savings from recycling identified by a majority of the life cycle assessments (LCAs) reviewed in the study. This suggests that there are CO2 savings to be made from recycling, even if the recovered materials have to be transported to China.

Reading this interesting report I made some more general conclusions.

The result confirms something that we already know: in order to achieve significant benefits from recycling a global network should be developed for recyclables management and utilization. For this network we need a set of flexible but effective rules and regulations that will assure that what is gained locally by recycling will not be lost globally by inappropriate management of recyclables.

Like all the Climate Change issues, recycling either it will be a global practice or it will die. Once again the future of our planet calls not just for cooperation but for a global recycling consortium which will include all continents and all countries. Is that possible? The answer is unknown but ISWA has a very important role to play in order to make it a “Yes”.

And last but not least, in the era of globalization Life Cycle Thinking should be a minimum requirement in order to take decisions for environmental issues. Our planet has become too wired to avoid it…

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