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Last edited 24 Mar 2021
Recycling has become an important part of community and business efforts to lower levels of material consumption, energy usage, carbon generation and landfill. It is part of the waste hierarchy – reduce, reuse, recycle. This suggests that it is most beneficial to the environment to reduce what we use in the first place. Where it is necessary to use things, we should then strive to re-use them, and only finally to recycle them if no further re-use is possible.
A recycled product will rarely be exactly the same as its original composition. For example, recycled paper contains ink residue and shorter fibres than virgin paper (made from wood pulp) and so may be less desirable for some uses. This 'inferiority' of some recycled materials is known as down-cycling, as a result of which, over time, some materials exhaust their recyclability and are no longer usable.
In some cases, however, materials can be up-cycled which means they are made into something more valuable than the original product (for example, using old bottles as lamps or an old suitcase as a medicine cabinet). The most common types of recyclable materials are:
Paper is sorted on the basis of its type, weight, use, colour and whether it has been previously recycled. Recycled paper results in significant net savings in terms of water and energy used, as well as the emission of pollutants.
When these are recycled they can save up to 95% of the energy required to make new cans.
Although recycling as a widespread concept has arisen only relatively recently with the new sense of environmental conscientiousness, it has been present in various forms for thousands of years. Recycling was a practical necessity prior to the Industrial age due to the fact that goods were not readily available at such cheap prices.
The Industrial Age fostered a new era of mass production which gave rise to a culture of disposability since goods could be produced and purchased cheaply, making more economic sense to throw them away rather than recycle them.
With the economic depressions of the 1930s and 40s, citizens of developed nations began to rely on recycling techniques as new goods were suddenly unaffordable. During the two world wars, many materials were rationed and recycled. In the post-war boom however, recycling slipped from widespread public consciousness, until the expansion of the environmental movement of the 1960s and 70s when recycling became a mainstream idea once again. During the late-20th century and early 21st century, as the threats of climate change have become more apparent, recycling programmes have become established and accepted as a central part of society.
The main reasons for the promotion of recycling include:
 Conservation of raw materials
Raw materials such as trees, rocks, minerals and oil are 'harvested' and as a result, reserves of such materials are in decline. Mining and other extraction operations continue to have a negative impact on large areas of many countries around the world, such as deforestation.
 Conservation of energy
The amount of energy required to create new products is frequently more than required for recycling. This does depend on the material though, as the manufacturing of plastic for instance can be inexpensive.
Recycling helps to reduce the requirement for landfill. Landfill sites harm the surrounding environment and habitats, particularly as a result of the chemicals that can be produced when waste breaks down. These can contaminate land and water and cause and can be hazardous.
Interpretation of the various EU waste directives has been devolved in the UK, which means that waste policy differs in terms of pace, strategy and targets between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Generally each individual council in the UK has the responsibility to provide recycling services, as opposed to relying on instructions from county councils or central government.
The UK construction industry is the largest consumer of resources, requiring more than 400 million tonnes of material a year (ref Davis Langdon). 32% of landfill waste comes from the construction and demolition of buildings and 13% of products delivered to construction sites are sent directly to landfill without being used (ref Technology Strategy Board).
A site waste management plan (SWMP) can be used to set out how materials will be managed efficiently and disposed of legally during the construction of the works, explaining how the re-use and recycling of materials will be maximised. See site waste management plan for more information.
The “Mean Lean Green” philosophy aims to produce developments that lower the demand for resources, provide efficient structures and deploy innovative technology. See mean lean green for more information.
 Related articles on Designing Buildings Wiki
- BREEAM Recycled aggregates.
- Circular economy.
- Construction waste.
- End of life potential.
- Environmental impact assessment EIA.
- Environmental plan for building design and construction.
- Managing packaging waste streams.
- Mean lean green.
- Pre-demolition audit.
- Recyclable construction materials.
- Reduce, reuse, recycle.
- Reused construction products.
- Site waste management plan.
- Site Waste Management Plans – A Necessary Burden.
- Sustainable materials.
- Total Resource Use and Efficiency TRUE.
- UandI Think event with Studio SWINE.
- Waste and Resources Action Programme WRAP.
- Waste hierarchy.
- Waste management plan for England.
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