Sustainability is a necessity in the 21st century. Both recyclable and renewable resources will aid in making the planet safer, greener, and better for future generations. Recycling is the practice of transforming waste products into new supplies and products. Renewable resources are resources that have the capability to be naturally and organically replaced in a set time period. With the impending threat of climate change, understanding the difference and spreading awareness about both recyclable and renewable materials for sustainability is essential.

Renewable & Recyclable Resources Case Study: Timber & Plastic

There is a myriad of sustainable materials that are used in everyday life. Timber is an exceptional example of a sustainable material. It is used in the construction industry, furniture industry, as well as many other industries. It is a renewable resource and stores carbon throughout its life cycle. Since timber is both renewable and recyclable, using it in construction can help to lower greenhouse gas emissions and also provide us with an eco-friendly source of construction material.

Although timber is considered by many to be a sustainable material, it does come with numerous environmental problems. Logging (the process of cutting down trees for collecting timber) can alter the compositions of numerous species, negatively impact the structure of forests, and deplete the nutrients in the soil. Environmental activists have often debated on the positives and negatives of using timber. While materials like timber are considered by some to be eco-friendly, the logging industry often participates in illegal and non-sustainable logging, which contributes to deforestation. This, in turn, contributes to global warming and the degradation of biodiversity.

An alternative to the use of the renewable resource, timber, can be the use of a recyclable resource, plastic. Plastic is a material that is mainly created from petrochemicals and is not biodegradable. Although plastic is not renewable, it is recyclable, which means that used plastic can be melted down and remolded into numerous other products. This provides plastic with a longer and potentially more sustainable life than timber. Although it may seem that recyclable plastic is the better option than timber, plastic also comes with its own negatives. Although plastic is supposed to be recycled, it often ends up not be recycled and in turn, pollutes the environment.

Both renewable and recyclable materials have their positives and negatives and understanding how both of these types of materials work is key in comprehending how to make the earth more sustainable. So which is better for sustainable living? Should you rely on renewables and risk deforestation or should you switch to recyclables and risk leaving more pollution if the cycle of recycling is not fulfilled? The optimal solution to this question is complex.

Maintaining a Balance between Renewable and Recyclable Materials

The short answer to whether we should use renewable or recyclable materials is that we need to use both. Besides construction, timber is also used in numerous other industries, such as paper production, ship building and the manufacture of pallets. As a matter of fact, close to 40% of timber produced annually is believed to be consumed in the manufacture of pallets alone.

A regular warehouse can carry between 4000 and 6000 pallets which results in the felling of as many as 240 trees. In order to maintain a balance in the paper industry would require reducing the dependence on timber-based pallets and moving towards the production plastic pallets. However, completely relying on plastic pallets is also not a feasible option. This is because plastic is a finite resource and increasing demand for a finite resource would drive prices up, making it too costly of an alternative compared with an infinite resource like timber. A balanced approach would bring greater sustainability without compromising on the production costs or the environmental impact.

Recyclable Renewables

A third option instead of recyclables or renewables are recyclable renewables which, as the name implies, make it possible to recycle your renewable products. Recyclable renewables such as renewable plastic (made from cellulosic materials instead of petrochemicals) are an excellent alternative and may be the future of sustainability.

Every day, there are new recyclable renewables being researched, such as a case from Stanford University, where scientists have recently discovered newer ways to convert carbon dioxide and inedible plant materials into plastic. Developments like this will help with the mass production of plastic that is derived solely from renewable sources. These are materials are made from infinite resources and can also be recycled multiple times.

The current crop of recyclable and renewable sources are not entirely sustainable by themselves. Recyclable renewable sources provide us with a hopeful alternative that can provide sustainable living without impacting the environment as much as we do today.