Does it make more sense to recycle our trash or to just, well, trash it? The popularity of recycling waste is undeniable. Recycling waste is a topic many now agree on. And yet, its critics abound.
Recycling in the U.S.
The recycling process involves three steps: collection, processing, and remanufacturing. Each of the three has its own distinctive components:
- Local governments or the private sector do the collecting.
- Haulers take recyclables to a processing plant where the materials are sorted, cleaned, and readied for a manufacturer or miller.
- Recycled products are transformed into new products.
Sounds pretty straightforward. The US EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) lists several advantages of recycling trash:
- Cuts back on objects otherwise destined for landfills.
- Safeguards raw materials. These are used less frequently, hence some pollution is eliminated and energy saved.
- Provides jobs. In its 2020 REI Report (Recycling Economic Information), the US EPA reported that recycling created more than 680,000 jobs with nearly $38 billion in wages paid, and $5.5 billion in tax revenue raised.
Arguments Against Recycling and Their Rebuttals
The University of Colorado lists frequent arguments for recycling programs* and their rebuttals including:
- It costs more to recycle. The University of Colorado says that effective recycling programs cost less than running landfills and incinerators. They also state that the more people recycle, the cheaper the cost. Also, when recycled products are sold, money is made. Landfilling and incinerating trash, on the other hand, raises no money.
- Pollution is generated during the recycling process. On the contrary, recycling stops 18 types of air and water pollutants from being released.
- Recycling doesn’t save natural resources. Recycling saves non-renewable natural resources. For example, it takes up to 95% less energy to recycle aluminum than to create new aluminum. Similarly, major amounts of energy are saved when it comes to recycling steel, newspapers, plastic, and glass.
- There’s plenty of room in landfills. Not according to The University of Colorado study. They say that while most states have limited landfill capacity, recycling helps relieve that burden.
- Landfills are a safe means of disposing of trash. Landfills and incinerators actually contribute to pollution, including the release of leachates from solid waste and methane from decomposing trash. Leachates are liquids released when water drips through landfill waste, gathering contaminated material along the way. This material can find its destination in areas below the waste accumulation area, eventually entering waters such as groundwater and rivers. In this way, it can pollute the local environment. Methane, an extremely potent GHG (greenhouse gas), escapes from rotting waste where it is absorbed by the surrounding atmosphere. It is a contributor to the climate crisis.
- No market exists for recycled material. While prices of recycled materials fluctuate, markets do exist worldwide.
- We recycle enough already. The S. Environmental Protection Agency says that in 2018 alone the total generated MSW (Municipal Solid Waste) stood at 292.4 million tons. Of that, about 94 million tons were recycled or composted, or 32.1%. That leaves the rest – more than 2/3 — rotting in landfills or burned off in incinerators.
*Please turn to the following address to download the University of Colorado PDF report: chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/https://www.colorado.edu/ecenter/sites/default/files/attached-files/responses_to_common_anti-recycling_arguments_.pdf
Recycling and Environmental Pollution
According to the El Dorado County (California) website, recycling saves money and natural resources, and reduces risks from pollution.
They state in terms of energy:
- Each pound of steel recycled saves 5,450 BTUs of energy.
- A ton of recycled glass saves fuel oil.
- Recycling aluminum cans requires about 5% of the energy needed to produce aluminum; in fact, recycling one container saves enough electricity to burn a 100-watt light bulb for 3-1/2 hours.
The consumption of natural resources is reduced by recycling. In fact, each ton of steel recycled saves 2,500 pounds of iron ore, 1,000 pounds of coal, and 40 pounds of limestone.
El Dorado County also claims that recycling can reduce environmental problems inherent in mining, logging, and manufacturing raw resources. They write:
- When natural resources are recycled, the byproducts that invade the air and water are reduced. Air pollution is cut by 75% by remanufacturing paper.
- When recycled steel scrap replaces iron ore, air emissions are cut by 85% and water pollution from the process is cut by 76%.
What Can Be Recycled
With all the benefits recycling our waste brings, you might want to know what can and cannot be recycled, and how to prepare your refuse. Of course, depending on the locality, there can be some differences in what is accepted for recycling. The US EPA lists the following products as eligible:
- Aluminum (including aluminum foil)
- Batteries (require special handling)
- Household hazardous waste
- Lawn trimmings
- Used motor oil
People wanting to recycle properly often wonder whether to clean trash destined for the recycle bin. Generally, materials should be empty, clean, and dry, according to the State of Washington’s Department of Ecology. But don’t worry about it being spotless – just empty the container, give it a quick rinse, and shake out whatever water you can. Recyclables should be separated.
Participating Goodwill facilities accept computer equipment for Dellreconnect.com including computers, monitors, printers, scanners, hard drives, keyboards, mice, speakers, and cables. Find your local Dell Reconnect location by typing your zip code into the Dell Reconnect web page.
Or take your unwanted e-waste to any Best Buy or other retailer that accepts electronic waste. Best Buy claims to accept more electronics and appliances than any other retailer, averaging more than 400 pounds of recycling materials every minute their stores are open. Best Buy will take most of your unwanted e-waste whether or not you bought the product from them. And while it may not be e-waste, if you buy a large appliance from them, they will haul away the old appliance for a fee. Don’t bring large appliances into the store for recycling.
What Cannot Be Recycled
With much of our waste being capable of being reused, reduced, or recycled, nonrecyclables as well as recyclables remain in the waste stream. Some localities won’t take all recyclables. While localities differ on what they will and will not accept, there are some definite items to keep out of those green bins. All plastics should have a recycling symbol.
- Aerosol containers
- Broken glass
- Bubble wrap
- Finished or treated wood
- Hard book covers
- Medical waste including unused or expired medicines
- Metal clothes hangers
- Oil or grease-soaked cardboard boxes
- Oven-safe dishes (normally turned away due to a higher melting point than regular glass)
- Packing peanuts
- Plastic that doesn’t have a recycle symbol)
- Waxed paper or cartons
Trash: Now and in the Future
Plastics contribute an excessive amount of trash to the waste stream. More than 8 billion tons of plastic has been manufactured since it was first developed, and more than 6 billion ended up in the waste stream. A minuscule 9% has been recycled.
It’s eventual fate? Much of it winds up in the Earth’s oceans, where it presents a health hazard to the wildlife that lives in or otherwise depends on the ocean as their primary food source.
The World Bank says the world creates more than 2 billion tons of trash each year. That number is expected to grow to 3.4 tons by 2050. That means trash tossed each day amounts to about 0.74 kilograms (1.63 pounds) per person, with rich nations adding much more than poorer ones. Even though they represent only 16% of the world’s population, rich nations produce a hefty 34% of that trash.
All those recycling containers are here to stay. And regardless of whether your locality has a mandatory recycling program or not, you should recycle your waste. It’s just the right thing to do — for those living today and those who will follow.