What is recycling, how does it work, what types and stages are there?

Care for our planet should accompany our simplest, everyday activities, such as taking out the household waste. The correct sorting of waste in our homes begins the global process of waste recycling, which businesses, state governments and international organisations are becoming more and more engaged in. What is recycling? What is its importance for the modern economy, environment and ourselves? What are the types and stages of recycling? You can find the answers to these and many other questions concerning waste processing in this article. Read on!

Published: 4-03-2022

What is waste recycling?

The simplest definition of recycling states that it is the reuse of resources and materials, and therefore their return to circulation. However, the answer to the question of what is recycling is much more complicated, as waste processing itself is extremely complex, made up of multiple stages, and often runs in different ways. However, regardless of the various types of recycling, we can say that it is an activity intended to produce a new product through the efficient use of waste.

The importance of recycling, or why sort and process waste?

Now that we know what recycling means, another question presents itself: what importance do waste sorting and processing hold for the modern world? As it turns out, much can be said and written about the advantages and importance of recycling. The process has a great positive impact both on the ecosystem and the environment we live in, and on the economy and the socio-economic situation, but it also fosters reducing the use of Earth’s natural resources.

The adverse effect humans have on the environment is not a myth, but a very real issue, which grows proportionately to the degree of our civilisation’s development. At present, recycling also has an economic aspect – reusing resources is not only healthier but also cheaper than their extraction and refining.

The difference between recycling and recovery

Before we discuss the individual stages and types of recycling, it is worth considering how it differs from recovery. These terms are often used interchangeably, but in reality they refer to two different processes. Recovery is a broader category of activities, which involves the reuse of materials, energy or substances acquired from raw materials, while recycling is just one method that can be used to achieve this.

Effective segregation, or what is recyclable?

The spread of pro-environmental attitudes is fostered by education and the shaping of awareness regarding the importance of waste sorting. To effectively use the possibilities provided by waste processing, it is worth knowing what is and what is not recyclable. In this way, everyday managing of waste in the spirit of environmental protection becomes much easier.

Objects that are recyclable include:

  • paper newspapers, packages and office paper,
  • plastic products: PET bottles, packages, containers, etc.,
  • glass jars, bottles, packaging glass,
  • packages made of multiple materials (so-called multi-material packages),
  • plastic bags, plastic packaging films,
  • biodegradable waste: leaves, mown grass,
  • aluminium cans, tubes, car radiators,
  • cardboard packaging.

Materials that are not recyclable

As you can see, the group of materials and waste that are recyclable is very broad and includes many types of waste that we produce every day in our households, offices and workplaces. However, at the same time, we can identify a fairly large category of waste that is not suitable for reprocessing. In particular, this applies to such objects and products as:

  • everyday hygiene products and accessories,
  • used household appliances, radio and TV devices, electronics,
  • ceramic and heat-resistant glass,
  • dirty paper, carbon paper, wallpaper,
  • expanded polystyrene and plastic food packages,
  • thermometers, syringes and other medical supplies,
  • ceramic products, glass mirrors,
  • paper cups,
  • lantern inserts with wax residues.

Knowing whether a material is recyclable or if it cannot be reprocessed makes it much easier to decide if it should be placed in the sorted waste container or in the mixed waste.

Recycling – is it worth it?

The number of people who doubt the positive impact of recycling on the environment, industry, health, and our everyday life is thankfully shrinking with each passing year. The fact that different types of waste are collected from our households or businesses by the same company does not mean that they are transported and heaped on the same landfill. Their segregation into separate fractions continues after they are collected from their producers, so that subsequent stages of recycling can lead to effective processing of the recovered materials.

Types of recycling by different waste processing methods

So far in the article, we have discussed the definition of recycling, its global importance, and the classification of materials into recyclables and those that are unsuitable for reuse. Time to present another important issue, which is types of recycling. As it turns out, recovery and reuse of valuable resources can be done in a few different ways. The most common methods are:

  • resource recycling – often also referred to as chemical recycling, it involves recovering resources using chemical reactions and processes. A typical example will be the processing of plastic packages into new plastic products.
  • thermal recycling – in industry often also referred to as energy recycling due to the fact that its main product is the energy obtained by burning waste,
  • material recycling – another way of recovering resources, which involves above all mechanical processing of waste in order to create products and functional value out of them, for example, turning used car tyres into granulate or tartan,
  • organic recycling – used for biodegradable waste, commonly called composting. This waste is decomposed by microorganisms, and organic processes lead to the production of methane, organic matter or compost.

What stages of recycling are there?

Waste processing intended to acquire valuable materials and substances from it comprises multiple stages. The first recycling stage is sorting of materials, necessary to separate individual types of waste. This part of the process is done by the users at their homes when throwing out the waste. The next element of recycling is the fragmentation of materials and their separation. Some waste, especially that made of glass and plastics, also requires washing. This stage of recycling is done by immersing waste in special vats with cleaning products. The end product is made at the extrusion stage, which constitutes the final part of the entire process.

Products made thanks to recycling

Thermal, material, and resource recycling allow us to obtain various end products. We can make 5,000 new products out of paper alone, beginning with printer paper, napkins and filters, to bandages, coasters, dishes, plant pots, lamp elements, and even banknotes.

The range of products that reach the market from the processing of plastics, such as PET or HDPE, is just as impressive. These include:

  • films, packages and bottles,
  • pens, toys,
  • footwear and synthetic textiles,
  • thermal insulation and fuel materials,
  • PVC profiles, garden furniture,
  • sport accessories, car details and many other products.

Glass processing, on the other hand, gives us such products as bottles, wall insulation materials, glass tabletops, containers, and even photovoltaic modules.

How much waste do you need to make a new product?

Many people think that making recycled products requires great amounts of resources, making waste processing unprofitable. Nothing could be further from the truth. Making a warm fleece jacket only takes 35 plastic bottles, and processing 6 metal cans produces as much energy as burning 1 litre of fuel.

Is there no other way than to recycle?

Considering the plethora of benefits for the environment and economy, but also the growing pressure to reduce the scale of resource extraction, as well as the increasing costs of mining the deposits existing on Earth, recycling appears to be a solution we can no longer overlook. What is recycling for? Key benefits that support increasing the focus on reprocessing of plastics include:

  • reduction of harmful gas emissions by giving up burning waste at homes,
  • reduction of waste accumulation on landfills,
  • reduced exploitation of natural resource deposits,
  • ability to reuse valuable materials and substances,
  • reduction of the hazardous materials stored at landfills,
  • significant reduction of resource acquisition costs – recycling is cheaper and less invasive for the environment than extraction,
  • reduced costs and energy consumption.

Remember that these are just a few of the many benefits of recycling, whose extremely positive impact can be seen in many areas of everyday life: from health protection, to rational resource management, to protecting the environment.

Upcycling, or a ‘higher’ form of recycling

When discussing waste processing, it is worth mentioning the subject of upcycling, which is frequently referred to as a higher form of recycling. What does this term refer to? It means, of course, a form of processing that allows obtaining objects of a higher value than the initial products. Excellent examples of upcycling is the production of shoes from used tyres, or designer furniture from old pallets.


This article was written to familiarise the public with the definition of recycling, its importance in everyday life, as well as the stages and forms of processing recyclable materials. Each and every one of us, without exception, should ensure that as many objects suitable for recycling as possible find their way to recycling centres. The simplest way to do it is, of course, sorting waste at home or at your workplace. Although waste sorting has been mandatory in our country for several years now, the level of knowledge in society regarding the effectiveness and importance of recycling still leaves a lot to be desired. Spreading pro-environmental attitudes in our immediate environment – including through articles such as this one – is the first step towards living on a cleaner and more beautiful planet.

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