eli5: Why do biodegradable materials (e.g. paper) need to be recycled?


I’m assuming recycling (like most industrial processes), comes with its own carbon footprint / pollution overhead / energy consumption / etc., so why is it better to process these materials instead of letting them turn back into dirt in a landfill?

In: Technology

Because they are valuable. That means that people will pay for them, and you can use that money to recycle other, less profitable materials. If you waste the paper by letting it biodegrade, you have to plant more acres of trees to fill the demand for paper.

Nothing degrades in a landfill, over a reasonable time. It is lined with giant multi-layer pads (rather like disposable diapers) to keep from leaching into the soil, and there’s not enough oxygen to break stuff down.

If it DID break down, then it would still be confined by the barrier and contaminated by the rest of the landfill material, such as heavy metals.

Look at [photosynthesis](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photosynthesis): 6 carbon dioxide + 6 water -> 1 sugar + 6 oxygen. Plant then chains the sugars together into long strings of [cellulose](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cellulose), which form the body of the plant. Wood, fiber.

Paper is made from wood, plastics are generally organic materials… pretty much most organic materials have TONS of what was originally carbon dioxide, now “trapped” inside the plant or animal or whatnot. The tons that a tree weighs, came from carbon dioxide and water. The atoms didn’t disappear or get created, they just got recycled by nature. Trapped in plants, animals that ate the plants, etc. Literally the weight of the thing (tree, animal, oil, plastic) is carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen (water).

So while recycling does have a carbon footprint, energy consumption, and pollution overhead, letting the materials turn back into their original components would add a huge quantity of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

When you recycle paper you use the fiber in new paper products. The fiber in the paper can be reused about 5-7 times because it gets shorter each time.
If you did not recycle paper it the demand for paper products would not decrease. So the alternative is to get new fiber from trees.

So the alternative is not to recycle paper or not but recycle paper or use more trees to make papes. So you need to look at the total cost of carbon usage, pollution, energy use, and land use for both alternatives. Land use is a huge factor that you need to look at.

There are other options, for example, use the paper as fertilizer. Burn it as an energy source.

The other post have included the fact that it degrades very slowly in a landfill and then you discard a resource that could be used instead of something else.

So if you look at it all you find cost and environmental benefits in recycling paper.

Reduction usage might be an even better idea but that can be done at the same time that you recycle paper.

It doesn’t. You could throw paper in the green bin with the rest of the organic garbage. In fact, most jurisdictions recommend things like paper towels and food containers be put in the green bin. Since these are contaminated with grease and other food waste, they can’t be recycled, so they’re broken down for compost instead.

Other types of paper can be recycled though. It’s ground up into a pulp and used to make new paper. Typically lower grade products like newsprint and TP. Doing so requires less harvesting of raw materials. Ie trees.