What is the most valuable recyclable material

Recycling: Treasures from the garbage can

March 16, 2017 Climate Protection, Waste & Recycling

We produce rubbish every day. In addition to residual waste such as diapers or vacuum cleaner bags, this also includes empty yoghurt cups, read newspapers or defective electrical appliances - this adds up to a lot. In 2015, the average per person in Germany was around 450 kilograms - more than 1.2 kilograms per day.

In the past, it was often just a matter of getting rid of all this waste. The main thing is that they do not interfere! Waste was mostly stored in so-called landfills. Colloquially one says "garbage dump" to it. This is how whole mountains were created in many places!

Why is waste valuable?

Today experts speak of the fact that waste is valuable raw material that can be used. That protects the environment. Because if raw materials from waste are used, fewer raw materials have to be taken from nature.

For example, crude oil is used for plastic, and wood fibers are required for paper. It is not just the extraction of these raw materials that pollutes the environment. Energy is also used in processing them.

Avoid waste

Avoiding waste is even better than recycling! ÖkoLeo has a few tips for this:

Today, if possible, no waste should end up in landfills, according to the laws in Germany. Instead, a cycle should be created in which raw materials and materials are reused after use. This is called recycling. "Cycle" is the English word for "circle". Re-cycling means: bringing something back into the cycle.

How well does the cycle work?

Simply using fabrics again after use sounds sensible. In fact, it's not always easy. It works very well with paper and glass. Among other things, because these substances are collected separately. In order to recycle them, they do not have to be picked out of the waste first.

Glass, for example, has long been collected separately because it is very suitable for recycling. It can be melted down as often as you like. Less heat is required here than when manufacturing new glass from raw materials. That is why recycling saves energy.

New glass products can then be made from the molten mass. They have the same properties as before - almost. Because if the old glass was colored, white glass cannot be made from it.

So it is easier to use old glass for the production of colored glass. The proportion there is already very high. On average, companies use around half of the cullet for green or brown glass. Sometimes the percentage is even much higher.

Recycling works well with paper too. In Germany, almost three quarters of paper products are made from waste paper.

Paper is made up of many thin, long fibers. You can see them, for example, when you hold paper up to the light. Wood is used as the raw material for fiber production. So trees have to be felled and processed for new paper. These fibers can also be recovered from waste paper and processed into new paper.

This consumes energy and water, but much less than the production of new paper from wood fibers.

With waste paper it is similar to glass: The recycled material can be used almost as well as the new material made from raw materials - but there are restrictions. If the waste paper is heavily printed, dirty or has already been recycled several times, it is difficult to make completely white paper. In addition, the fibers cannot be reused indefinitely.

Around 50 liters of water are required to produce 200 new sheets of copy paper. In comparison, recycled paper only needs a third of the amount of water and half the energy.

Waste paper is therefore sorted before recycling. Good quality waste paper becomes smooth, white paper for printing or writing. The less good waste paper can be turned into packaging or cardboard boxes, for example.

What else is in the trash?

In addition to paper and glass, there are other materials in the waste that are easy to recycle. Basically, plastic and metals, for example, can be melted down and reused.

The problem with this is that there are many different types of plastics and metals. To recycle them, you have to sort them. Unfortunately, most plastics and metals end up mixed up in the trash. In addition, they are usually built in and connected to other materials so that they cannot be easily accessed.

An example are electrical devices such as hair dryers, televisions or cell phones. This includes various plastics and metals, among other things. However, it is very complicated to disassemble such a device into its individual parts in order to recycle the various materials.

For this reason, old electrical appliances are collected separately and brought to facilities that specialize in their processing. For this reason, old devices must not be disposed of in the residual waste bin. Because then the valuable components cannot be recovered. The old devices can either be returned to the recycling centers in cities and municipalities or to retailers.

Cell phones, for example, contain particularly valuable and rare metals. In order to be able to use these raw materials again, it is important that even small old devices such as cell phones are returned to the collection points.

Electricity from waste

Some waste cannot be recycled, but it can still be reused. For example, electricity or heat can be generated from bio-waste. You can find out more about this in the Ökoleo interview:

With some waste, special care is required because it contains toxic substances. These include, for example, mercury in energy-saving lamps or some chemicals in refrigerators. Even with such waste it is important that it is collected separately and taken to suitable facilities for disposal.

What is important for recycling to work?

Although many materials are already being reused, much more recycling would be possible. It works if the waste is suitable for it. You can also contribute by helping to collect waste separately.

In the case of waste glass, for example, it is important that the glass is sorted by color. And printed juice packaging does not belong in the paper waste, but in the yellow sack.

Companies can also do a lot for more recycling. They can design their products in such a way that they can be recycled as easily as possible.


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There are valuable substances in waste. (Image: onnola / flickr.com / CC BY-SA 2.0)