Recycling was one of the first steps to kicking off the environmentalist movement. Although the concept of repurposing has been around for thousands of years, the United States first became acquainted with recycling in a formal sense in the 1970s. It took quite some time to catch on, but recycling is now simpler than ever, with even several public eateries offering easy-to-decipher recycling bins. Although recycling is one of many steps towards sustainability and a greener earth, it also has its caveats.
Most avid recyclers think that it is necessary to have separate bins for cans, paper, and plastic because they believe that all of the recyclable materials must be sorted out by hand at the recycling plant. In fact, modern recycling plants have machines that use things like magnets to target specific materials. These are called single-stream recycling plants, and they are becoming increasingly common. Single-stream recycling is a fantastic innovation because people are far more likely to recycle when they don’t think of it as a hassle, trying to determine which materials go in what bin. Plus, it allows for automated truck routes for the collection trucks, conserving gas and allowing for less air pollution.
Jerry Powell, who owns three recycling publications including Resource Recycling, debunks the idea that everything you recycle is repurposed in your local recycling plant. In actuality, he notes, 25% of all scrap material collected in the United States is exported to China. There are conflicting views about what is done with the recycled materials once they get to China. The Environmental Protection Agency is under the impression that China uses responsible recycling methods, while the Government Accountability Office sees China as a developing country, potentially practicing unsafe recycling methods subject to environmentally unfriendly results. Even if recycled material stays in America, it doesn’t necessarily make it to recycling plants. Gene Jones, executive director of Southern Waste Information Exchange, says that recycling plants occasionally get so inundated with recyclable materials that they sometimes have to resort to dumping them into landfills.
Many people are under the impression that biodegradable waste is better for the environment and doesn’t need to be recycled because it breaks down naturally in landfills. In fact, biodegradable waste releases the greenhouse gases methane and carbon dioxide. When methane leaks into the atmosphere, it takes its environmental toll by worsening global warming. Theoretically, some landfills operate under the notion that methane can be harnessed and used for energy. However, biodegradable waste decomposes too quickly to capture the methane for energy purposes. Furthermore, biodegradable plastic releases the most methane in the average landfill, according to Rodale News’ Emily Main.
The recycling symbol is easily identified as three “chasing arrows,” which are said to represent the three steps of the recycling mantra: reduce, reuse, and recycle. Most people see the symbol and assume that the item can be recycled. Inside the chasing arrows is a number, which identifies the type of resin used in the product. Not all resin types can be recycled, thus the symbol is very misleading. In order to know whether or not the plastic can be recycled, you must identify the particular resin that corresponds with the number and contact your local recycling agency to determine if it is acceptable at their plant.
People may not realize that recycling, too, has its environmental impact. For example, the trucks that pick up recyclable materials dispel just as many pollutants as regular garbage trucks. The difference is that these trucks pick up far fewer recycling materials than garbage trucks pick up waste, so the same amount of gasoline is used and pollution is incurred for less actual product. The factories where recyclable materials end up use equipment that has its own environmental footprint. Likewise, while yearly reports suggest that the environment is better off due to more recycled waste, the numbers don’t take consumption or more packaging into account. According to Forbes, some of the materials produce more greenhouse emissions when recycled than they would if the waste was just reduced. The factories themselves shed pollutants.
Environmentalists would have you believe that the world is becoming so crammed with trash that we won’t be able to move around in the next 10 years or so. We are nearly bullied into recycling because of this threat. Nobody will argue that recycling doesn’t have its benefits, but the idea that we are running out of room to store trash is simply absurd and untrue. According to Rich Trzupek, environmental consultant and senior advisor to the Heartland Institute, the United States has only used about 560,000 acres’ worth for landfills. That only accounts for 0.02% of the United States’ soil. The real problem is that landfills are now placed outside of cities where they can grow larger without the waft of trash smells trickling into residential areas, thus trucks have to transport waste farther away to reach its destination. This causes more pollution from transportation.
Glass is the most expensive material to recycle, and because of the work involved, many recycling plants want nothing to do with it. Likewise, if glass breaks during the collection process, it contaminates the rest of the recycled materials. Debbie Brady of Pocatello, Idaho’s Sanitation Department notes that glass is made of sand, and thus will not hurt the environment. It can be disposed of with the normal trash and sit for thousands of years in a landfill without any environmental impact. Further, Brady adds, “It takes 23 glass bottles with a total weight of 10 pounds to deliver the same environmental benefit as recycling six empty aluminum cans with a weight of three ounces, or a pound of newspaper, plastic or tin.” By the time you figure in the cost of collecting, storing, handling, sorting, shipping and processing glass, the benefits are virtually null.
There are so many cancer claims these days; it’s becoming a bit ridiculous. Of course, it’s easy to point fingers at stagnant trash and call it carcinogenic. Most people will not refute the idea that landfills are gross, smelly, and hard on the eyes. However, the EPA has extensively researched the dangers of living near a landfill, inhaling landfill gas, and ingesting tap water in areas near landfills, and found that there are no added dangers to those who live near landfills. In short, trash poses no immediate threat to our health.