Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Recycling Explained

Recycling is anything that involves recovering and reusing materials/products that are normally considered rubbish and thrown away. You are recycling when you reuse waste materials/products, for example reusing glass jars for food storage, donating old toys to charity instead of throwing them away and dropping off sorted recyclables in recycling bins so that they can be recovered and reprocessed to make new products. For example, metals can be melted down and reused to make all sorts of things from tins to vehicle parts.

What is Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Recycling?

There are three types of recycling, known as primary, secondary and tertiary. Primary recycling means that the recyclable material/product is recovered and reused without being changed in any way and usually for the very same purpose. Secondary recycling means that the material/product is reused in some other way without reprocessing, while tertiary recycling refers to a process that involves chemical altering of the material/product in order to make it reusable.

Examples of Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Recycling

The easiest way to understand the difference between the mentioned three types of recycling is to take a look at examples of each.

In order for the material/product to be classified as primary recycled, it mustn’t be changed in any way. In a way, primary recycling can be defined as secondhand use – reusing yourself, donating to a friend, family member or charity organisation, or/and selling, for example at an online auction.

This type of recycling involves some sort of modification of the material/product without the use of chemical processes. Examples include cutting the eggbox in half to use it as a seed starter, cutting the upper half of a plastic bottle to use it as plant pot, cutting and reshaping various waste products to make arts and crafts, cutting envelopes into smaller pieces to use them as scrap paper, etc.

If a material/product has been tertiary recycled it means it has been reprocessed either by a chemical process or heat. Examples include melting metals, chemically treating old paper and breaking down plastic bottles in order to make brand new products.

Tertiary recycling can be external or internal. If it’s external, it means that the recycled materials/products were recovered and reprocessed thanks to public participation – sorting waste and putting it in recycling bins to be collected and transferred to reprocessing facilities. Internal recycling means that the materials/products were recovered without public participation, for example within factories and manufacturing facilities.


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