Two important points: (a) Recycling always comes with an environmental cost, even if it’s significantly less than the one from creating an item from virgin materials, and is nowhere near as good as limiting your unwanted trash/recycling in the first place, and, (b), just because you throw an item in a blue bin doesn’t mean it’s actually getting recycled.
So is it worth the effort to recycle at all? I’m going to take a look at some common categories and we’ll review.
Aluminum. Recycling aluminum cans is a fantastically efficient process with no obvious downside. It takes 95% less energy to produce a can from recycled materials than new stuff, which is probably why you could always get a nickel for these babies even before recycling came into vogue in its recent form. This one’s a no brainer.
Paper. Worldwide, the pulp and paper industry accounts for 4% of the world’s energy use, and uses more water to produce a ton of product than any other industry. Plus, paper is made out of trees, and trees are pretty useful to have around to take in carbon dioxide (to combat global warming), provide habitat for animals, and put treehouses in. (Clearcutting forests to make a bunch of brochures probably isn’t going to fall into the “worth it” pile in fifty years.) According to Earth Greetings, recycled paper uses 36% less energy consumption and 44% fewer greenhouse gases than virgin paper, and those are significant numbers. Also, the argument goes that paper that goes directly to the landfill emits methane, a greenhouse gas, as it decomposes. One ton of paper = 1.38 tons of Co2. (Though it’s not clear when and if this actually happens, given studies that show landfills don’t allow for enough oxygen for anything to really break down, so put this in the maybe pile.)
While recycling paper is worth it, it requires a lot of energy and water to either recycle paper or make it from trees, so use both sides and limit your use of paper where you can. When you do recycle your paper, know that China will take it, and that fact has made this woman rich.
Glass. Glass is made out of sand, which is pretty awesome, if you stop to think about it. Not only that, but it is pretty much infinitely recyclable. Recycling glass is only 21% more energy efficient than making new glass, which may not sound like much compared to the efficiency of aluminum, but if you worked for a company and had an idea that was going to make things 21% more efficient, I’d guess you’d be in for a big fat raise come performance review time. Because glass is heavy and thus requires a lot of fuel to transport from one place to another, it’s possible that there are specific situations (like being hundreds of miles away from a recycling location) where it might make sense to throw away glass bottles rather than recycling them. However, unless you are in such a specific situation, I would advise always recycling your glass. I would also always advise choosing glass over plastic when the choice is available, because glass is made from a plentiful source, is inert, and poses no real threat to anyone outside of a barroom fight. Whereas plastic, its most likely substitute, sucks.
Plastic. Plastic is light, versatile, and a serious environmental problem. Plastic recycling doesn’t even really exist, not in the way that people think. While an aluminum can can go on to many lives as another aluminum can, and the same goes for glass bottles, your plastic water and beverage bottles are “downcycled” into other products, like patio furniture and car parts — almost always items that are a dead-end, recycle-wise. I guess that’s better than nothing, but that means every time a bottle is manufactured virgin materials are being used — which in this case is crude oil, and all the problems that entails.
Much of it ends up in the oceans and forms the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the North Atlantic Garbage Patch, which both feature floatable plastic debris spread over a significant, hard-to-measure area. While these phrases bring to mind a massive area with endless pieces of plastic clearly visible to the naked eye, and that’s not quite accurate, it’s still pretty offputting. Plastic is also responsible for polluting many a formerly pristine beach, like Hawaii’s Kamilo Beach, which gets about 15-20 tons of trash a year washed in from the ocean. The most direct victims of all this plastic are seabirds, who mistake it for food and eat it. This plastic gets stuck in their stomachs,
leaving no room for actual food. A study from 2005 shows that 95% of all fulmars washed up dead at the North Sea contained fragments of plastic.
There are also studies from the Center for Disease Control that show possible health risks from some type of plastic use, notably polycarbonates (marked #7 on the bottom), which can leach a potentially harmful chemical into your food.
In a lot of ways, I wish there were no “recycling” program for plastics, because I think that would make people think twice before buying or acquiring it. I think it’s pointless enough to be almost a feel-good exercise, which is why I’m pretty haphazard about throwing my shampoo bottles into the blue bin. It’s far more important to minimize your contact with the plastics industry than to “recycle” your own plastic, because if you’re creating a market for this stuff, that means more plastic blown out of recycling and garbage trucks and into the streets, more overturned shipping containers full of plastic products or nurdles that go directly into the ocean, and more seabirds with their bellies full of plastic.
If you think I’m anti-plastic, you should check out the website of this woman who has almost completely eliminated her plastic use since 2007.
Also, limit your rinsing out of recycled items to the bare minimum. This is solely to keep away pests and has no impact on the recycling process itself. Conserving water is always worth it!
If you still have any burning questions about recycling, let me know, because I’m going to try to interview someone from the LA County Recycling Program in the next few days.