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Posted on November 4th, 2014

Outside the Box – Does Recycling Have Drawbacks?

I have a friend who did his BS in environmental science and his MS in environmental stewardship. The other day I was at his house having some beers and I asked where I should put the cans and bottles. He told me just to throw them away. I was caught off guard and immediately asked him why he didn’t recycle. He said that recycling is not efficient, and that we put too much effort in to something that reaps little reward. He said he hoped that would change in the future, but that it just wasn’t worth anyone’s time to do so now. Huh. I most certainly didn’t agree with him, but being that he’s a very smart fellow, I thought I’d look into it a bit.

In 2013, CBS ran a report about the perceptions and effects of home-use recycling. According to their study, of the 250 million tons of trash thrown out each year, nearly 85 million tons was diverted from landfills to recycling plants. But still, there are other skeptics out there than just my friend. One person CBS interviewed gave a statistic that is frequently cited: only 5% of waste generated in this country comes from homes, so can individuals really make a difference? New York City officials say yes, and not just environmentally, but financially, too.

The Newby Island Resource Recovery Park in Santa Clara County, California is one of the largest recycling centers in the country. Their green energy facility generates enough renewable energy to power over 3,000 homes a year. 60-cm color image captured by QuickBird on June 19, 2014 and comes courtesy of DigitalGlobe. Photo enhanced by Apollo Mapping.

While NYC has some of the “laziest” recyclers in the country (curious since I just moved back from Texas where you have to drive your recycling to the next town if you want to do your part), in that only 15% of their trash is diverted from landfills as compared to the national average of 34%. The Big Apple’s constituents have made some strides over the last few years, which has saved the City $30 million a year with hopes to double that by 2017. NYC receives $10 per ton of recycled paper which leads to a savings of $86 per ton as compared to a landfill drop of paper. Clearly there’s a different kind of green in that recycling than what you might think.

So maybe my friend didn’t have his ducks in a row with his assertion that recycling wasn’t worth it. Well, hold on. What about plastics? This material makes up (and wraps up) an awful lot of what we consume and therefore much of what we discard. That far-off recycling plant in Texas I referred to only took #1 and #2 plastics because it wasn’t economical for them to take other designations. Plastics differ in the heat they melt at, meaning you can’t commingle them all together. This leads to extra sorting and fuel costs when you have to process different batches of plastic at different temperatures and for different lengths of time. A 2008 Popular Mechanics article reminded us that those plastic containers we’re so fond of are made from petroleum, so therefore have value; but when it comes time to recycling them, we have to consider the cost of transportation and energy. In addition, they reminded us to consider the carbon emissions from the transitional recycling process. Hmm. True.

Well, where does that leave us? Clearly some forms of recycling are worth their weight in gold (pun intended), but others have a ways to go, perhaps. Or more appropriately, we as consumers have a ways to go. Our lifestyle has caused many of us to not think about the consequences of our consumption in many ways; we know there is a recycling bin nearby, so as long as we use it, we’re doing our part, right? Here in Boulder, Colorado, everyone uses their stainless steel or heavy duty glass water bottles and brings their reusable cloth bags to the grocery stores. And that trend can be seen all over the country (even in Texas where I lived for a spell), but what we need to do is be more aware about our uses of other plastics. Not only because of the difficulty and expense of recycling them, but because of the health reasons attached to doing so (which we’ll look at next month).

Justin Harmon
Staff Writer

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