Before we can explain why recycling is important, we must understand what recycling is. Recycling is the process of reclaiming materials from a product so that they may be used as raw material in making a new product. Products such as containers made of plastic, glass, steel, cardboard and aluminum are very easy to recycle through directly processing the materials into a new product by melting them down or shredding them and molding the material into new cans, jugs, bottles, boxes and other products. Plastic is a little more complicated than the rest. We talk about this in the article on [types of plastic]. We also show the sorting and breakdown process of the other materials in the video on [single stream recycling].
Recovering materials from more complex products, such as batteries or electronics, is more involved, but it can and should be done.
Recycling differs from reusing in that recycling produces a raw material for use in making new products. Reusing is finding a new purpose for an old product, but in essentially its original form: using a metal bed headboard as a garden gate, for example. It is modified and repurposed, but not melted down.
The EPA states that as of 2011 only 34% of recyclable materials were being recycled. That means 66% is ending up in landfills or burned and lost forever.
Arguments for Recycling
One of the more important factors is the savings in energy costs of producing a product from recycled material rather than from virgin ore, wood, or petroleum. The cost of mining and refining iron ore, bauxite, silicon, and petroleum into steel, aluminum, glass and plastic is much higher than the cost of recycling existing materials into new products.
Recycling existing material conserves natural resources. The more existing material we recycle the less we have to dig out of the ground to meet our needs. These natural resources are not infinite. At some point we will have found and exploited all there is. Once it’s all used up, we will have to recycle or do without, and there will be much less to recycle then.
Recycling usable materials reduces the burden on our landfills. We send thousands of tons of trash daily from our homes and businesses off to be dumped into a huge trench in the ground and buried. Too much of this consists of materials we can recycle into usable goods again. It is incredibly wasteful to bury consumer goods in the ground in one place only to have to dig raw materials out of another place to replace those products.
Recycling saves you money in the long run. Making the goods you buy from recycled materials saves the manufacturer materials cost, therefore the products can be sold for less. Reducing the demand for electricity also helps lower utility costs for everyone. And you can save by making some of the things you need yourself. If you have a lawn, flowers or a vegetable garden, you probably have to buy compost and fertilizers. But you can [make your own compost] from the kitchen scraps, egg shells and grass clippings you normally pay to have hauled away to a landfill.
Recycling exiting materials reduces the manufacturing process and associated pollution produced by the refineries and plants that make the materials needed to make the products we buy. Reducing harmful emissions is good for everyone.
Reasons People Refuse to Recycle
It’s too hard or too complicated. Depending on how your community’s recycling is handled, sorting out and storing recyclables for the next pickup or drop-off can seem complicated, but it’s not. It’s far less complicated than organizing your closet! And as more and more communities adopt Single Stream Recycling it gets even easier.
I don’t know what is recyclable. A quick phone call or visit to the web site of your local waste management service or the area chapter of Keep America Beautiful will result in a list of what materials are accepted for recycling, how to identify them and how to store them. Generally speaking, glass, aluminum, steel, paper, cardboard, and plastic are accepted, but some communities don’t have buyers for all these materials. For instance, most communities can recycle #1 and #2 plastics (i.e. soda bottles and milk jugs) but may not be able to accept #4 through #7 plastics because reprocessing these is more difficult and there are fewer buyers.
I don’t have space. Even if your recycling program is still asking you to separate the recycling goods, stackable bins or plastic bags can be used to sort and store them between pick-ups or drop-offs. It takes very little room. Most grocery stores now have boxes or bins for depositing clean used plastic shopping bags for recycling. Just take them back when you go shopping.
They don’t pay me to do their work. If we refused to do everything someone didn’t pay us to do, the world (and your life) would be a mess indeed! We do all kinds of things; sometimes for ourselves, sometimes for others, without expecting to be paid. It’s a matter of seeing the value or benefit in it.
If we had to pay people to sift through the landfill looking for the recyclable goods you threw out with the refuse because you refuse to recycle, the fees you pay to have your refuse hauled away – or the taxes you pay that include these fees – will go way up because of the extra manpower needed to do the job after the fact instead of removing these materials before going to the landfill. Given the benefits of recycling, it just makes sense to work together as a community with everyone pitching in and helping out.
You may not have seen the benefits in your own life before today, but if you look at the big picture: the rate of use of natural resources, the cost of manufacturing, the environmental impact, and the waste disposal issues, you do benefit from recycling, you just didn’t know it. Now you do. Won’t you join in? Please recycle.
Interesting Recycling Facts
- The average person generates 4.5 pounds of trash every day – about 1.5 tons of solid waste per year. Although the EPA estimates that 75 percent of solid waste is recyclable, only about 30 percent is actually recycled.
- Did you know that we generate 21.5 million tons of food residuals annually? If this food waste were composted instead of being sent to landfills, the resulting reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would be equivalent to taking more than two million cars off the road.
- Almost any business can successfully divert food discards from landfills. Businesses with record-setting food diversion programs are recovering 50% to 100% of their food discards and reducing their overall solid waste by 33% to 85%.
- If all the dimensional lumber used to build the 1.2 million new homes constructed in the United State each year were laid end to end, it would extend 3 million miles, the equivalent of going to the moon and back six and a half times.
- Home construction, remodeling and demolition projects are responsible for 25 to 30 percent of the nation’s annual municipal solid waste.
- Many sorted materials are directed into products that are recycled multiple times, producing the conservation benefits and savings many times over. This is true “diversion” — materials moving many steps away from the landfill by being able to be repeatedly recycled.
- In 2004, 55 billion aluminum cans were landfilled, littered or incinerated, that’s 9 billion more than were wasted in 2000. This is enough cans to fill the Empire State Building twenty times. It is also a quantity equivalent to the annual production of three to four major primary aluminum smelters.
- Because so many of them are recycled, aluminum cans account for less than 1% of the total U.S. waste stream, even so, the energy required to replace just the aluminum cans wasted in 2001 was equivalent to 16 million barrels of crude oil, enough to meet the electricity needs of all homes in Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, San Francisco and Seattle.
- During the time it takes you to read this sentence, 50,000 more 12-ounce aluminum cans are made. Let’s recycle them.
- Although recycling is the most common method of plastic waste pollution prevention, less than one percent of all plastics products are recycled in the U.S. Americans throw away 25,000,000 plastic beverage bottles every hour!
- Each ton (2000 pounds) of recycled paper can save:
- 3.5 cubic yards of landfill
- 17 thirty foot (pulp) trees
- 7,000 gallons of water
- 380 gallons of oil
- 4100 kwh of energy
- And, at the same time eliminate 60 pounds of air pollutants
- The amount of wood and paper we throw away each year is enough to heat 50,000,000 homes for 20 years.