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Recycled or Renewable Resources?

By: Hsin-Yi Cohen BSc, MA, MSt - Updated: 2 Oct 2012 | comments*Discuss
 
Recycled Resource Renewable Resource

In our quest for environmental-responsibility, we often come across terms like “renewable” and “recycled” which are used to describe products and influence our purchasing decisions. But what exactly do these terms mean?

Recycled

The process of recycling takes existing products and re-processes them into new products. In this way, it makes additional use of any functional potential still contained within the materials so that there is no or minimal wastage. It also helps to reduce the consumption of raw materials and the energy needed to process them. Recycling processes generally take up less energy and release less greenhouse emissions than virgin production.

Nowadays, a wide range of materials can be recycled and these include aluminium, paper, glass, iron, plastics and textiles. Essentially, any organic material which is biodegradable - such as food or garden waste - can also be recycled via composting or breakdown by specific organisms (eg. worm farms) although this is more relevant to waste management than the functional reuse of the materials.

One crucial factor for successful recycling is the correct separation and sorting of material types, as purity of material is important for ease of reprocessing as well as increasing the recylates’ value. This sorting is often done by the original waste-producers (eg. the different containers for kerbside collections) but it can also be done by semi- or fully-automated materials recovery facilities.

Renewable

Renewable resources refer to natural resources that are replenished through natural processes at a rate that matches the rate of consumption by humans. Some renewable resources, such as solar and tidal energy, are actually perpetual resources which can never be used beyond their long-term availability. Water can also fall into this category although note that if groundwater is removed at a greater rate than it is recharged by the natural hydrologic process, then it no longer qualifies as a renewable resource. Sustainability is the key.

Other renewable resources only maintain their renewable status if they are harvested and managed sustainably. Many crops fall into this category, as well as materials such as wood. Some materials tend to be more renewable due to their natural growth cycles or inherent properties, for example, bamboo and cork – however, they still need to be sustainably managed in order to retain their renewable status.

Recycled Vs. Renewable

Although they seem to be describing two different properties, the two terms are actually linked through the concept of sustainability. That is, ‘renewable’ refers to the sustainable use of a resource at a rate slower than that at which the resource is regenerated. On the other hand, recycled refers to the sustainable use of a non-renewable resource by using it in a cyclical way. So both ideas relate to sustainable use.

It must be noted that there does seem to be some difference with regards to image. To many people, the term recycled always carries connotations of “cheap” and “second-hand quality” or “used goods” whereas the term renewable carries a higher quality connotation. When it comes to eco-friendly flooring, for example, renewable materials often win out over recycled materials, although this may also be partly to do with the additional carbon costs involved in recycling and the inherent look and function of the materials.

In any case, both recycled and renewable resources are vastly preferred over using more raw materials, especially if an energy-intensive extraction and manufacture process is involved. By pushing for products with these labels, consumers can help influence industries to take a more environmentally-responsible approach.

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