Recycling : where have the impacts gone…?

october 2015 (2, see for part 1:

Part II: current recycling 

Have you ever thought about recycling? And how the impacts from first time used seem to be disappeared when re-used now? This is the great mystery of circular economy: the lost impacts .

We calculate a lot, but its only figures, actually not much happens  nothing happens to compensate the impact. So how about to deal with that when actually recycle something?

Part I was about recycling in future, ( see previous blog) this is about today.  Is recycling  treated in a just way?

Recycling as such is needed, and nothing wrong with that in principle. But that does not imply that recycling is free from impact. ( now or in the future) That we do not need to include  environmental loads for it. And I dont mean the regular efforts like collecting, treating and transport of “waste to recycle”. They are part of the cascading process. No, I mean the the impact from the materials themselves: from their first time virgin use.

They had an impact when they where first used in the past. Has this impact been compensated during their period of use? In 99% of cases not. It has been used just as a figure, to calculate some load in some assessment tool. But its only paper and after construction or  production permission: its forgotten. Nobody has compensated the impact, has regenerated resources, captured and stored CO2 for it, has set up a renewable energy production scheme or whatever. So when the materials are available for recycling, the impact is still there. It still counts….!  It has not gone away because  you made a calculation, or got a fancy label from some dealer in  assessment tools back then.  A label, is just a label. It doesn’ t compensate , or reduce anything,

With recycling, , the most you could say and claim is  that the material has (probably) functioned for some years , and that the impact per year of function becomes smaller. It could be agreed to have a reduced impact for the recycled materials based on those years. Thats fair. But then, how much?


Which brings us to the second observation: does it matter how long a material has been in function, has it been 10, 50 or 100 years, and does that make a difference? The (remaining) materials impacts  of a building that served for 10 years or  one that served 100 years are the same?  A small example to illustrate this: a steel window frame arrives at the construction site, but is disapproved: its 2 cm to large, calculation mistake, can happen. Its returned to the factory, melted again and a week later the new one arrives, with the right size: Its claimed to be made from recycled materials….  But in fact the material went twice through the melting process, and has double impact compared to a virgin window frame….

If the recycling like  in this example would be awarded, the best strategy would become to throw everything  in the waste heap first, and then (re-) use it as impact free….


The point is, its important how long something has been in function, to know its history, to eventually average its impact over years of service ( and calculate a reduced value for recycling) . Or in the best case to know if first time use actually has been compensated, in which  case it can be impact value free indeed. ( like for instance the tree that has been regrown on the same spot where the first time wood was cut from.) The time component is crucial.

If you don’t know the history, the recycled material can come from a building demolished after one year, and count as value free while its has been misused completely. Unless you know the history the conclusion must be: recycling material counts as new material, unless….

And its pure misleading  to regard recycling material as ” 100% avoided impact ” from virgin materials, as is the usual practice  in LCA.  Its pure swindle .


An interesting example regarding time was given in a blog by Craig Jones ( about aluminum drinking cans: 55% is recycled. 55% is not bad, even so the  the 55 % is not impact free as we argued above. However, this is not the full story: The loop time of cans  is 60 days. Averaged over a year 95% of aluminum is lost….! Its not about the 55%, is the function provided over time that has to be calculated and compared (  And still, that’s figures,  the  impact has most likely not been compensated. )

In fact the conclusion should be, recycling is nothing else as prolonged use of a material , with first time impact and additional cascading impacts added and  averaged over time of service.  And the impact does not disappear, but can become lower over time ( per period).  Unless  compensated of course ( if we would do it properly) .

The rest is nonsense.

Author: ronald rovers