Recycling is a basic function of the universe although we may not be aware of it. Examples are the circular movements of the planets, life and death, day and night, and the change of season and climate. It’s a natural law of change that all living things must follow for their own good.
What does recycling mean? It means renewal and regeneration where the old fades away and the new and fresh arrive. The old does not disappear altogether but transforms into its basic elements to give rise to the new. The best example is the decay of dead plants and animals to form nutrients in the soil that will nourish the new generation.
Recycling also means reducing wastes. It applies to ideas too, besides materials. The wheel is an ancient invention whose good idea is being recycled infinite number of times. Imagine if we have to reinvent the wheel every time, how much effort are we wasting?
Nature has given us three great recycling machines: the sun, the earth’s rotation, and the ubiquitous micro-organisms. The sun’s heat recycles water by evaporating fresh water out of the ocean and dumping it on land in the form of rain and snow. The wind and the jet stream that carry the clouds are the result of the earth’s rotation combined with the sun’s heat. Besides fresh water, nature recycles all organic matters by employing the functions of micro-organisms. When fish, plants and animals die, the microbes feed on them and reduce them to basic nutrients that nourish the ocean and the soil (a process known as decay or decomposition).
On the other hand, nature does not provide us with a recycling machine for inorganic products made by humans. Therefore it requires our conscious efforts to clean up and recycle inorganic materials. Since the industrial age began some 300 years ago, humans have been creating gigantic amounts of inorganic materials. These are industrial wastes and unused products. The best-known are: greenhouse gases especially carbon dioxide (too much for green plants to absorb), plastic materials (taking millions of years to decompose if at all), and discarded products (rubber tires, electronic parts, machine parts that cause disposal problems).
The recycling of industrial wastes and products should be the primary focus for the future. Why? Our failure to recycle inorganic materials will disrupts the natural organic recycling process. Take carbon dioxide for instance, if we fail to find a way to reduce or recycle this greenhouse gas, climate change will greatly disrupt the natural recycling of fresh water in the form of severe droughts and floods.
The prevailing old thinking of production is to dig up whatever is available underground such as oil and raw materials. Then burn and use them and discard the rest, without worrying about the environmental consequences. A new vision is beginning to take shape nowadays. It involves an appreciation of the wonderful things that nature provides, and an effort to partner with nature to make our production and living standard sustainable in the future. How? Recycling industrial wastes and unused products is one of the key solutions.
Most companies used to think of recycling as costs that worsen their bottom lines. They dump all their industrial wastes wherever they can without worrying about the environment. When the industrial wastes accumulate to critical levels, the environmental damages will become visible and difficult to mend. What do we do then? This old thinking has to change. Reducing and recycling inorganic wastes will open opportunities to a new and enhanced economy. This will be the economy of tomorrow that emphasizes less wastes, more efficiency, greener products, and sustained environmental health.