Until relatively recently, recycling was not a major part of most people’s lives. However, the last few years have seen it become an integral aspect of our everyday activities, with many of us sorting our waste into recyclables and non-recyclables without really thinking about it.
Recycling is seen by citizens and public policy makers alike as a real solution to multiple environmental problems.
While recycling is generally considered to be positive, many of us fail to consider that our actions may have also harmful effects that are contrary to the purpose we are trying to achieve. Before embracing recycling with unrestrained fervor, we should take a closer look at everything it entails, to see if the general enthusiasm for this practice is warranted.
Advantages of recycling
Recycling has many undeniable benefits, for individuals, communities, the economy, the environment and society as a whole…
Recycling reduces the need for landfills
The world’s seven plus billion citizens produce more than two billion tons of solid waste annually, all of which has to go somewhere—and if it isn’t being recycled, most of it will go to landfills, the chosen repositories for communities all across the globe .
Landfills are unsightly, unsanitary and displeasing to the olfactory system. Waste simply sits there to rot, a process that takes decades if not longer.
Landfills are also a threat to the integrity of local water reservoirs and aquifers—rainfall mixed with garbage creates a noxious and toxic slurry called leachate, which can seep into the ground and eventually make its way into the water supply, contaminating it with organic chemicals, heavy metals, bacteria, cancer-causing agents and other harmful substances .
Landfills are required to take preventive measures to stop this from happening. However, when landfills are filled to overflowing breaches in protective layers can occur. Older landfills and poorly designed and/or managed landfills are also a risk, as are unregulated dumps where people dispose of things they can’t or choose not to recycle.
Greenhouse gases such as methane (which is also potentially explosive) are emitted from landfills, while infectious disease vectors like rats and flies are drawn to these sites as well.
Recycling figures vary by nation, but even in those that do well (Austria and Germany are the world leaders, with recycling rates of above 60 percent) there is room for improvement .
If urban sprawl is undesirable garbage sprawl is even worse, and every contribution you make to the recycling bin lightens the load on communities that must somehow dispose of all their garbage.
By recycling, we are reducing the amount of material that gets sent to landfills, which reduces the potential for all these described impacts. Social benefits too arise from decreased landfill use, as unpleasant odors and congestion associated with sites are reduced.
Recycling cuts energy consumption, which helps in the fight against global warming
The principal reason for recycling is to reduce energy usage. By repeatedly using materials (perhaps in different forms), we are reducing the amount of raw materials that are needed to be produce new products.
Processes such as mining and refining use up massive amounts of energy, so by finding alternative uses for things which have already had one life, we are helping to restrict the necessity for further invasive activities which negatively impact on the environment.
According to figures released by the U.S. government, you can save the following amounts of energy (in British Thermal Units) by recycling one ton of each of these materials :
- Glass: 714,000 Btus
- Newspaper: 10.2 million Btus
- Steel: 10.9 million Btus
- Plastic: 98 million Btus
- Aluminum: 238 million Btus
These dramatic reductions in energy consumption mean equivalent reductions in carbon emissions, which makes the recycling industry a powerful ally in the fight against climate change.
Lower energy usage also means reduced costs for manufacturers and, ultimately, lower prices for you as a consumer, when you purchase products made from recycled materials.
Recycling provides bountiful supplies of low-cost materials
The ready availability of recycled materials certainly helps those who are already producing products that incorporate recycled metals, plastic, glass or paper. Expanded supplies lower prices and make such product creation more economical.
But mass-scale recycling also helps encourage aspiring entrepreneurs who are on the lookout for cheap materials they can convert into new saleable goods. And just as significantly, the wide availability of inexpensive recycled materials will spur innovators to redesign existing products to include more recycled plastic, aluminum or steel, reducing their reliance on more costly materials without the environmentally-friendly profile.
The dynamic of recycling can produce its own unique form of growth, which can be good for the economy and good for the environment, making it the ideal 21st century technology.
Recycling creates new jobs, and many of them are local
Every community is worried about the scarcity of jobs, many of which have been lost to outsourcing.
Increased recycling is one way to reverse this trend. Materials produced at local recycling plants can be used to supply local manufacturers, who can quickly turn reclaimed glass, aluminum or plastic into quality products for sale in city, state or regional markets.
Recycling is a grassroots growth industry that drives the engine of local job creation, independent from any global trends and outside forces. According to estimates by the nonprofit Institute for Local Self-Reliance, recycling initiatives over the past few decades have already added more than one million new jobs to the U.S. economy, and that total will continue to rise as recycling spreads .
If recycling expands to its full potential, it could become a true leader in the area of environmentally-friendly employment.
Recycling helps cultivate environmental awareness
This is a somewhat intangible benefit, but is undoubtedly one of the most important.
The recycling industry engages and empowers people in the struggle to reverse course on the environment, without asking them to spend a lot of extra money or make significant personal sacrifices. Recycling is a win-win proposition for everyone, and it sends the message that ecologically sound practice can improve our lives rather than making them more burdensome.
Once people become enthused about recycling, as so many do, they will inevitably start searching for other ways jump in on the side of the angels, as an opponent of environmentally destructive practices.
Perhaps they’ll explore the possibility of installing solar panels; or maybe they’ll volunteer with a nonprofit organization raising awareness about global warming or local water contamination issues—once people get the idea their actions make a difference (which they will when they recycle), the sky is the limit.
Disadvantages of recycling
Despite its obvious utility, recycling alone will not save the environment. Its true disadvantages are few, but it has one big one that must be acknowledged as we contemplate the pathway toward a more sustainable future.
Recycling may inhibit a commitment to reducing resource consumption
Reducing resource consumption is the most important solution to our environmental dilemmas.
Recycling is valuable, but it is not a panacea, and if we think of it in those terms we will be lulling ourselves into a false sense of security. Not to mention, setting ourselves—and the environment—up for a fall of Humpty-Dumptian proportions.
As a species we emit 2.57 million pounds of carbon dioxide into the air each second, and recycling actually contributes to that total even if its contributions are less than those of industries that harvest fresh raw materials or use them in manufacturing .
And regardless of what we do with it, the human species is still producing more than two billion tons of garbage each year, and that number is expected to expand to an astonishing four billion tons by the year 2100 if current trends continue .
To put that in perspective, even if we recycled 75 percent of the waste we produce, which has often been stated as a realistic high-end goal, that would still leave us with more than a billion tons of garbage to dispose of in landfills or through incineration in 2100, assuming we do nothing else to alter current projections .
Naturally, this prodigious level of waste cannot be blamed on recycling. But if we attempt to solve our garbage problem through recycling alone, the results will be disappointing—and catastrophic for the human race and for our precious planet.
Sadly, at the present time our success at promoting recycling has not led to dramatic decreases in waste production. Hyper-consumerism and the waste-generating momentum it sustains are ultimately a bigger threat to the health of the ecosystem than our failure to expand recycling, and we must never lose sight of that reality as we create plans of action in the future.
Recycling is not always cost-effective process and employee-friendly
The need to establish separate factories to process reusable materials drives up costs, as well as increases pollution as material must be transported, cleaned and stored.
Initial costs to set up recycling units are high too, as specialist utility vehicles must be acquired, facilities upgraded and residents educated as to the necessity for the process.
From a social aspect, although recycling creates jobs, as a study in Environmental Impact Assessment Review found, these are often poorly paid, unsatisfying roles which require individuals to sift through waste.
In many ways, recycling sites are little different from landfills, and have their own share of hazards, with workers potentially coming into contact with toxic materials that may impact on their health. Any kind of waste brings with it the possibility for disease and the leaching of harmful chemicals, which can end up contaminating water supplies.
The problem is made worse by the bad management of many sites, particularly in poorer countries where standards are low.
The benefits of using recycled materials
The risk of overestimating the impact of recycling is real. Nevertheless, recycling still represents an important step on the way to a truly sustainable society, and it is something we should all embrace with as much enthusiasm and commitment as possible.
And there is more to it that simply contributing to the recycling bin. When you actually purchase items made from recycled materials, you are supporting the recycling industry on both ends and thereby doubling your impact.
A bigger market for such products increases the motivation for federal, state and local policy makers to support recycling initiatives, and encourages manufacturers and retailers to make the shift to recycled materials and products as quickly and completely as possible.
The growth potential for the recycling industry is not unlimited, but it is explosive. Assuming there is truth behind the oft-quoted statistic that 75 percent of the garbage we produce is potentially recyclable, it means that dramatic improvements in our capacity to reuse and reclaim the waste we produce are possible—but only if we take responsibility as individuals to make it happen, for ourselves and for posterity.
Recycling and the future of the planet
Recycling is a clear part of our lives these days, with amounts of materials rising constantly as the message is sent out to more and more people. However, what is often forgotten is that recycling is just one part of what is known as the ‘waste hierarchy,’ which evaluates the processes that protect the environment according to their energy and resource use.
Recycling actually sits somewhere in the middle of the hierarchy, with ‘reuse’, ‘minimization’ and ‘prevention’ clearly above it, so bear this is mind next time you’re making a purchase or standing in front of your bins.
Recycling works as a short-term and long-term remedy for climate change disasters, and even if it isn’t the sole answer it is clearly part of the solution.
If left unchecked, climate change could create hundreds of millions of environmental refugees, as a result of rising sea levels, massive crop failures, droughts, resource scarcity wars and more severe natural disasters. It could lead to famines, epidemics and a shocking expansion of environmentally-related poverty, utterly disrupting economies and societies and causing death on an unimaginable scale.
Worst-case scenarios may not come to pass, but if they don’t it will only be because we’ve taken action to prevent them.