Is recycling worth it? Most of us do it on a regular basis, but what difference is it really having on the planet?
While recycling in the U.S. is at its highest rate in history, some folks still aren’t sold on the concept. Recently, John Tierney wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times called, “The Reign of Recycling” (a follow up to his 1996 Times article in the same vein) questioning the theory and practice of recycling waste in the U.S.
According to the EPA, recycling is up from just 10 percent of overall generated waste in 1980 to more than 34 percent in 2012 as more municipalities and states mandate public recycling programs. And let’s be clear what we mean by recycling: We aren’t talking about repurposing your home waste, like reusing egg cartons and seed planters, but are referring to the practice of sorting out and collecting certain materials from home (and business) waste with the goal of reusing them in the manufacturing of new materials.
So, what is John Tierney’s beef with recycling? Mainly, he argues, as he did in his 1996 piece, that recycling is costly and ineffectual. He argues that as recycling has morphed into an activity that is environmentally virtuous in and of itself, it doesn’t necessarily bring the economic benefits that supporters touted. For example, it's more expensive for many municipalities to recycle waste than to send it to the landfill. This fact is a reality that isn’t easy to argue away as those resources are diverted from other potentially important environmental initiatives.
Also, Tierney criticizes the expansion of programs to include glass and plastics, both of which are expensive and resource-intensive to recycle. When looking at just the reduction of greenhouse gasses, more than 90 percent of the benefits come from paper, cardboard and metals, according to the EPA. That means a lot of effort and resources are put into recycling materials that aren’t bringing about much in the way of emissions reductions. Tierney notes, “As a labor-intensive activity, recycling is an increasingly expensive way to produce materials that are less and less valuable.”
While Tierney is clearly not a proponent for widespread efforts to recycle waste (at least for some materials), and this is clearly out of step with current attitudes both on an individual basis and by policy makers, the reality is that whether recycling is inherently a good or bad practice is actually most likely somewhere in the middle.
There are some real environmental advantages gained, even if the economic benefits touted in earlier decades haven’t materialized, but to do what is environmentally ethical we need to look critically at the real costs and benefits of recycling--and think about alternatives. As more municipalities are looking at instituting “zero waste” policies, Americans and policymakers need to think about other solutions for reducing waste like stressing the reduce part of the three R's mantra--reduce, reuse, and recycle.
Do make sure to read the full opinion piece, whether you agree with his arguments or not, and take a look at the comments (always the juiciest part of most articles on the Internet) and let us know if you think recycling is worth it or not--leave your comments on our Facebook page.
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Image: Recycling Bins via Shutterstock