How sustainable are current recycling methods?

You would think that recycling is generally good for the environment but dig into it a little and you’ll find these activities consume huge amounts of energy and water.

A typical recycling centre is a large, centralised facility, so the waste material first needs to be transported a long distance from source to centre. That’s fuel. At the centre, the waste is sorted into type by people and machinery (usually conveyor belts). That’s people power and electricity (fuel). Then the sorted material is mechanically processed (crushed, shredded, packaged and some more conveyors). That’s more electricity but it’s also a lot of water because mechanical machinery gets very hot, so it needs the water to cool it down. Finally, the recycled products are transported to customers in markets both domestic and global, which means more fuel and a whole lot more people power too.

As an example, here are some figures from our tyre recycling operation in NW England. BIG ATOM collection team uses a fleet of vans & drivers to collect tyre waste from garages within 60-mile radius of the recycling site. On average each garage is 30 miles from our site. To collect 120 tyres (1 tonne) a collection van will consume 7L of diesel to make the 60-mile round trip. Once on site, the tyres are loaded into a shredding and granulation system which separates the steel, rubber and textiles. Because the local power grid infrastructure is poor, we have to generate our own electrical power via diesel generators. So, each tonne of processed tyres will have consumed another 35L diesel in the shredding and granulation system. Add 200L water for cooling. Finally, the steel, rubber and textile products are carried away on large lorries. On average they travel 200 miles to our customers and a fully loaded lorry will has fuel efficiency of 8 mpg. That works out as another 100L of diesel to get the products to market. All in, some 142L diesel & 200L water per tonne, or 1.2L diesel and 1.7L water per tyre BIG ATOM recycles.

There are 65 million tyres recycled in the UK each year. Using our example, the UK would consume somewhere near 80 million litres of diesel and 110 million litres of water each year just recycling tyres. That’s huge.