Does Recycling Really Help The Environment?
Where would we be without recycling? If we didn’t figure out how to make old things into new things, the planet probably would have stopped spinning. If we didn’t recycle paper, we’d be out of trees. If we didn’t recycle glass bottles, we’d probably be out of sand by now. Right?
It turns out that something we probably thought we all could agree was a force for good may be more controversial than we ever imagined.
The Argument Against Recycling
Criticism surrounding recycling revolves around a few central issues. First, it has been argued that recycling is actually bad for the environment – that it consumes fuel, expends energy and actually contributes to pollution.
Another common argument is that there isn’t too much garbage, that many landfills have plenty of space, and when they fill up, there is vast, infertile, uninhabited, unused space to make new landfills.
Finally, there is a psychological argument that says if people feel like there is no harm in buying environmentally destructive products – like plastic – because they can always be recycled, what’s the incentive to buy products that are better for the Earth?
The Recycling Realities
Yes, recycling is a process, and like all processes, it requires energy and energy requires the expenditure of fuel. Although some older, less efficient recycling methods do create enough waste and pollution that it almost cancels out the benefits, there are many modern methods whose processes create just a tiny bit of waste and pollution while recovering and saving a comparably huge amount of resources.
Yes, there is plenty of room on the planet to dig giant holes, fill them with garbage and then cover them up. We can do that, but should we when there are options?
As for the argument that recycling gives consumers a false sense of security, the answer is the psychology should be the same whether products are recycled or not – it is always better to waste as little as possible.
Not All Recycled Products are the Same
As discussed in the article “The Do Not Recycle List: What to Keep Out of Your Recycling Bin,” there are some things that are not worth recycling. Some things are more trouble than they’re worth, others contain materials that could contaminate the rest of the recyclables, and other items simply can’t be recycled.
Can’t Be Recycled
Plastic grocery store bags can’t be recycled. Even worse, they can get caught in the sorting machines and gum up the works. Don’t try to recycle ceramics – it can’t be done. Plastic caps on water bottles are the wrong kind of plastic, separate them before sorting.
Might Contaminate the Rest of the Batch
Although the metal in aerosol cans can be recycled, it isn’t worth it due to the potential of chemical contamination. Also, keep batteries and CFL bulbs out of the recycling bin. Don’t try to recycle used pizza boxes, the grease doesn’t mix with the water used in the recycling process. Finally, used napkins and paper plates are trash, not recyclables.
Not Worth the Effort
Used diapers have trace amounts of recyclable plastics, but separating it from the waste is more trouble than it’s worth. Wet paper is also not worth the effort required to extract the usable fibers. They don’t recycle brightly colored paper for the same reason you don’t wash bright new clothes with whites – the color runs.
The discussion about whether or not we should be recycling isn’t much of a discussion at all. Modern recycling saves precious resources, conserves raw materials and saves energy. It is up to the consumer to know what to recycle and what not to, and its up to us to petition our government to make recycling smarter and safer.
About Author: Andrew Lisa is a freelance writer who covers business and the environment. You can follow him on Twitter.