Recycling: The Good, The Bad, The Costly?

2016 was officially the hottest year on record, third in a series of three record breaking years for climate change. Ice caps and glaciers are melting, polar bears are losing their habitats, the coral reefs are bleaching and dying due to ocean acidification, the rainforests continue to be deforested, sea levels are rising and displacing coastal populations, etc. etc. etc. At this point, it’s hard to deny that climate change poses a one of the largest imminent threats to our survival and the health of our planet. What isn’t so clear is what we can do to slow it, stop it, and reverse it. As the majority of us aren’t politicians, world leaders, and lobbyists who have significant control over policy making and international climate change deals, this blog aims to analyze the effectiveness, pros, and cons of different things you and I, as individuals, can do to mitigate our carbon footprint and help save the world (in our own little way). One of the most widespread and recognizable efforts at consumer targeted conservation efforts is recycling. In elementary school, the mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle!” was ground into my head, and I now faithfully separate my plastics, papers, and glasses into neatly labeled containers. However, in this first post I’d like to delve deeper into recycling… is it an effective conservation effort?

Let’s look at the environmental effect recycling has had. According to Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss writing for Scientific American, recycling in America is widely considered a huge success. Over the past 40 years, America has progressed from recycling none of its waste to recycling 33.8% of waste. Although we don’t necessarily recycle as much as possible, the we’re currently keeping about a third of solid waste out of our landfills, recycling materials to save natural resources, and lowering our carbon footprint. Moreover, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance reports that, “In some industries, automobiles, lead acid batteries, paper and cardboard, construction steel, recycled materials comprise a majority, in some cases a vast majority, of the materials used in new products.” We’ve drastically reduced the amount of new, typically non-renewable materials used in manufacturing products in favor of recyclables. This has profound environmental benefits. The Scientific American piece explains that recycling just one ton of aluminum cans saves us 1,665 gallons of gasoline, and Alex Hutchinson for Popular Mechanics reports that it only takes an average of 10.4 million Btu (a unit of energy) to manufacture products from a ton of recycled materials compared to 23.3. million Btu for virgin (or new) materials.

Here’s an infographic with some more info about recycling

However, the Popular Mechanics article points out that recycling isn’t necessarily as effective as it superficially seems; we pick up recyclables using fuel-hungry, smog-producing trucks retracing the routes garbage trucks already drive, then reprocess the materials in facilities that burn energy and emit pollution. Although the article explains that recycling on net is still extremely beneficial in terms of energy consumption, we should also consider the fact that many of the materials we’re conversing aren’t necessarily expensive or non-renewable (for example, the main material saved by recycling glass is sand). Recycling glass saves a lot of energy, which we still mainly get from burning fossil fuels, but the idea that we’re saving tons of natural resources by recycling glass is a little hyperbolized once you take a look at it.

Aside from the environmental conversation about recycling, we should also consider the economic one. According to the piece in Scientific American, recycling is not cheap. When comparing the cost of recycling (sending out extra trucks to pick up recyclables, investing in technology or manpower to sort the different materials, reprocessing the materials) to the cost of regular trash collection (one truck picks up everything and dumps it in a landfill), recycling can be cost and effort prohibitive in certain municipalities. Thus, we see that recycling programs show extreme variation throughout the country, both in range of implementation and success. For more rural areas or economically struggling areas, it may not make sense to implement a recycling program (e.g. if they expect extremely low participation rates, if the region is sparsely populated making trash collection difficult, if they’re strapped for cash and need to spend it on job creation, education, etc.). Even New York City, which was a recycling pioneer a few decades ago, has seen recycling rates plummet to 15% with the recent economic turndown. NYC officials claim the environmental benefits don’t justify the costs. On the other side of the spectrum is San Francisco, perhaps the greenest city in America today. Compared to the US average of 33.8% recycling, San Francisco now recycles or composts over a whopping 77% of their waste. In fact, they’re even aiming to be completely zero waste by 2020! Like a few countries around the world, San Francisco encourages conservation by using a “pay to throw” program, which means people pay by weight to throw away trash while recycling and compost are free (meaning it’s much cheaper to go green).

San Francisco, soon to be our first zero waste city?

In the end, I don’t believe every city is going to be able to easily follow in San Francisco’s footsteps, and we will probably not reach such a high recycling rate throughout the entire US due to the simple fact that recycling effectiveness and efficiency are highly dependent on the economic and demographic characteristics of individual towns and cities. However, much of the current literature on the net environmental effects of recycling is conclusive: recycling helps the environment! Even after taking increased transportation and processing into account, recycling benefits the environment overall, helping reduce landfill waste, save raw materials, and save energy (which in turn reduces our use of non-renewable, dirty fossil fuel energy). Therefore, if you’re in a position where you can recycle, I would encourage you to. For any readers living in areas without recycling programs, perhaps reach out to town council members in order to open a community discussion about implementing such a program. The good news for us students at PSU is that the University makes it super easy to recycle, with pre-divided recycling containers and clear posters telling us what can/can’t go in each receptacle. If any of you guys have other interesting pros or cons of recycling that you think I should have considered, let me know in the comments below.



The New Recycling Movement: Part 1. Recycling Changes to Meet New Challenges


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5 thoughts on “Recycling: The Good, The Bad, The Costly?

  1. Sojung, I really liked how you took the topic of recycling and really analyzed it, revealing the good and the bad that comes from it. I think that a lot of people are aware that recycling has positive benefits, but don’t really take into the account of the processing of the materials as well as just how drastic of an impact recycling has on landfills and creating more material resources.
    I thought the statistics were really eye opening, especially the fact that one ton of aluminum cans saves us 1,665 gallons of gasoline. I never thought of putting two different non-renewable resources together and noting that one would have an effect on the other. Saving gasoline is so important especially with the energy shortage that we soon will have due to depleting natural resources from excessive burning of fossil fuels.
    I also enjoyed the infographic that you included, I never was aware that certain products had limits on how often or how many times they could be recycled. It helped to organize and separate the blog into chunks that were easy for the reader to digest.
    When talking about recycling programs in different cities, specifically low income I was thinking that maybe environmentalist agencies could offer some stipend to those who implement and keep up with a recycling plan. It is awesome to hear about how eco-friendly San Francisco is and that they recycle 77% of their waste!
    I looked into some information about which countries are best about recycling waste and what their methods are so that maybe America (and hopefully eventually the rest of the world) can implement them to make our environment a bit cleaner. I found that Germany recycles the most waste, at 65%, partly because of their bottle deposit system. One problem that has arisen from this though is that the poorer members of society have begun to dig up through the trash. (
    From this article I also found that the United States, while certainly not the best country at recycling on the list, is not one of the worst either. Overall, recycling is an important part of a sustainable society, and I think your blog does a great job of spreading the word about its positive effects. Can’t wait to hear what you have next!

    1. I checked out that article about recycling, and I saw the graph that shows how much each country recycles. USA was right in the middle of the pack- that’s embarassing! We should totally focus more efforts on recyclying programs. I think one thing that is holdign us back is the sheer size of the country and how much waste is produced byt 310 million people, plus a lot of those people are very traditional, if you will, and won’t readily switch over to recycling. Just a thought.

      1. I definitely agree that the size of our country is a set back in our recycling efforts. I think it is easier for smaller countries to get behind national recycling programs, but because of our large population and variety of environmental opinions it will definitely be a challenge to get America on the same page about recycling.

        1. I feel like part of the reason America might not be one of the leaders in recycling is because of our government/governmental system. In many of the countries that lead in recycling, like South Korea for example, the federal/national government takes a much stronger stance on recycling — in South Korea, the “pay to throw” system is implemented in almost all major cities and towns. This might explain why they are second on the list of the top recycling countries right now! I agree with Richard that many localities and more rural areas in America might not find it convenient/efficient/effective/important to implement a recycling program, which might be helped by something like government subsidies for going green?

  2. Sojung,
    I thought this was a well written and informative blog post. I too had the “reduce, reuse, recycle” slogan instilled at a young age. Honestly, it just makes sense to recycle! Unfortunately, my community doesn’t offer recycling that is picked up, you have to drive it to a station. I kind of think that defeats the purpose of doing something good for the environment because no everyone has to pile up their recyclables and then burn some fossil fuels to take them to the recycling center. We save cardboard boxes and some plastic items since they are easy to store, but I don’t recycle as much as I could while at home.

    I have been very impressed with the recycling program here at Penn State. It is very easy and convenient for me to take me trash down to the end of the hall, sort it out into the labeled bins, and then feel all warm and fuzzy inside since I helped the planet a little bit. Pretty much anywhere on campus has recycling bins available, and I see a lot of people using them which is good.

    Before college, I might just chuck a plastic water bottle in the trash and not think twice about it. After having been here for so many months now, I have realized that it is pretty easy to hold on to that water bottle and find the nearest blue bin for recycling. I cringe if I have to throw away something that I could have recycled. And I think this is all it takes, if everyone was aware of how easy, simple, and environmentally beneficial it is to recycle, a lot more people would participate.

    Since Penn State has made me a reducer, a reuser, and recycler, I decided to look up information about their program. According the Mobius website (, PSU recycles 200 tons of plastic bottles a year! The water fountain stations set up around campus are intended to encourage the use of refillable bottles, which keeps plastic out of landfills. One thing I should probably look into is the “Green-to-go” program where plastic takeout containers can be returned to the dining halls, cleaned, and washed again. I think that is a great idea that all colleges should have, even big office complexes could initiate a similar program.

    Anyways, thanks Sojung for getting me thinking about recycling some more. It is always good to be wise in the use of our resources, especially because we want them to be there in the future.

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