The 7th Resource: The part recyclables can play in global economics

The Earth has 6 natural resources that need little introduction: water, air, oil, natural gas, coal, and minerals. These resources are, in a manner of speaking, elemental – not only to our way of life, but our very existence. Without some of these resources, society as we know it would not be possible. Without all of them, life wouldn’t be possible on our planet at all.

The Global Recycling Foundation, founders of Global Recycling Day (18 March, FYI), however, refer to recycling as “the 7th resource” – placing it on equal footing with water, air, oil, gas, coal and minerals. Could such a billing be accurate?

Recycling is often perceived as something done out of conservation and not economic necessity. Some may even have an idea that products should be made of raw, virgin materials, as a mark of quality. In contrast, products made from recyclables are, at best, enthusiast “special edition” products, and at worst, compromised.

Thinking about recycling as the “7th resource” means changing that mentality. Think about it this way: a liquid board carton (e.g., a long-life milk container) already represents the sunk cost of the raw material used to make it. If, after use, it can be reprocessed into something else, the need for raw material is reduced significantly. That’s exactly what recycling is – regenerative – where the materials used can be used again for something equally useful, even the same product in some cases.

Recycling also offers the key to minimising the pressure we place on natural resources. Let's discuss how recycled materials relate to each of the six finite natural resources:


Recycling materials can help reduce water consumption in manufacturing processes. Paper recycling, for example, requires less water than creating paper from virgin material does, with 26,498 litres of water saved by recycling just one tonne of paper. Mpact Paper in Springs even recycles the water it uses through a process called reclamation – a method of purifying wastewater for repeated uses.


While coal is primarily used for energy production, recycling can indirectly impact coal consumption by reducing the demand for new raw materials in manufacturing. For instance, recycled steel requires less coal for production compared to making steel from raw iron ore. The same goes for glass.

People have long pushed for the viability of using waste products like sawdust and coffee grounds as alternatives to coal in the consumer space. Going well beyond the braai, however, experts in the field are considering replacing landfilling and incineration with more sustainable waste-to-energy technologies. These innovations extract useful by-products from waste, such as radiant heat or electricity. Anaerobic digestion, gasification, and pyrolysis are just some of the technologies being developed that provide a cleaner, safer, and more eco-friendly alternative to coal.

Oil & Gas:

Recycling one ton of plastic saves 5,774 kWh of energy, nearly 7,500 litres of gasoline, and 16 barrels of oil.

The recycling of materials like plastics can help decrease the demand for fossil fuels used in the production of new plastics. Recycled plastic can be used to produce new plastic products, decreasing the reliance on virgin petrochemicals. World leaders have agreed to cut carbon emissions by 43% by 2030, with the EU outright banning the trade of new combustion engine vehicles by 2035. Both rulings will have a massive impact on the production of virgin plastic as it’s an industry largely based on a by-product of petroleum refinement.

Recycling paper also reduces the need for cutting down trees, indirectly impacting oil consumption in the production of paper products. Paper is changing as an industry, with far more emphasis on cardboard thanks to rampant shipping and shopping, but far less on physical media like books, magazines, and newspapers. The amount of industries making the jump to being electronic based (including literature, education, art, finance, and legal) is increasing rapidly; that, coupled with the aforementioned initiatives to cut global emissions and fossil fuel dependence, will create a paper industry that should be able to sustain itself with recyclables and minimum oil (and trees), if any at all.


Recycling metals, such as aluminium and copper, reduces the need for mining and processing new minerals.

Aluminium is used in a huge variety of products, from beverage cans and foil, to window frames and partitioning for construction projects. Its long life, widespread usage, and ability to be recycled over infinite cycles, indicates that there’s more than enough in the market for recycling to provide a viable alternative to aluminium mining.

Copper products have been in circulation for centuries. Currently, copper wiring is the basis of our electrical and telecommunications infrastructure (although that is changing with the onset of glass-based fibre optics). Copper, alongside a huge variety of metals (such as lithium, cobalt, silver, silicon and lead) are all vital to electronics manufacturing and the recycling of electronic waste, known as e-waste, helps recover these valuable metals and minerals and put them toward more exciting technological feats.


The state of our air quality today is compromised by particulate matter, which impacts cancer and other morbidities. It is a direct outcome of the industrial revolution that happened back in the 1700s – and still persists – birthing the culture of waste and over-reliance on natural resources that underpins movements in conservation, green initiatives, humane labour, and renewable energy today.

While air is not directly impacted by recycling, the reduction in the extraction and processing of raw materials through recycling contributes to lower emissions. The manufacturing of goods from recycled materials often requires less energy compared to using virgin resources as well. By simply making the transition to recyclable sources, we can reverse nearly 300 years of atmospheric damage caused by smokestacks and combustion engines.


Recycling is an essential aspect of sustainable resource management. The concept of considering recycling as the 7th resource is based on the fact that it can significantly contribute towards preserving and extending the life of our finite natural resources. By recycling materials, we can reduce the need for extracting virgin materials, which in turn reduces the negative environmental impact associated with resource extraction.

Moreover, recycling holds the potential to significantly contribute to building a circular and resource-efficient economy. By incorporating recycled materials into the production cycle, we can minimise waste generation, conserve energy, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This not only helps protect the environment but also creates new economic opportunities (such as income generation) in the recycling industry.

Therefore, promoting recycling as the 7th resource is not only crucial for ensuring sustainable resource management; it also stands to reshape the economy into a resilient and equitable environment that benefits businesses and individuals alike.

That’s why it’s time to stop thinking about recyclables as an auxiliary part of the manufacturing sector. We need to realign these materials as a key aspect of industry to change the outlook for the health of our planet and its natural wealth.

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