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.
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).
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.
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