Recycling—what goes around…
All you ever wanted to know about recycling - and more!
Except that it turns out it’s not so simple.
How much garbage, and how much of it is recycled
Every year, about 250 million tons of municipal solid waste is created in the USA—that’s the trash from homes and businesses (not including things like construction waste, which would add another 325 million tons). That comes out to about 1800 pounds per person. Of that amount, about a third (85 million tons) enters the recycling stream (the recovery rate is from 67 percent of paper to 58 percent for aluminum to 15 percent for household glass). About half of this recycled material is exported to other countries who want it worse than we do, with China taking about half of it, and Canada coming in a distant second.
Recycling’s rank in the eco-friendly pantheon
First, compared to other actions to care for the environment, recycling is perhaps the sixth or seventh most important environmental issue we should be addressing, after biggies like transportation, the size and efficiency of our homes, what foods we eat and where they come from and how much we waste, the footprint of all our imported clothing and electronics and plastic lawn chairs.
And then there’s our entire economic system and its focus on “growth” and consumption, and the way it externalizes our environmental sins: for instance, all the carbon dioxide we are spewing out is already raising sea levels, alternately scorching and flooding us, causing climate zones to shift, warming up the entire ocean, and will leave our children a planet-in-chaos—but there’s no penalty built into our heating, cooling and gasoline bills to discourage our use of these or to pay for reparations.
Why some things don’t “pay” to recycle
But back to recycling. Economics is at work there too. Turns out that making things out of scratch—especially plastics and glass, is often cheaper than making them out of recycled materials. Why? Oil prices are really low (feedstock of plastic) and there’s less demand for recyclable material overseas, which evidently is where a lot of our plastic bottles get shipped to be recycled.
But doesn’t it still save energy, if not money? Maybe not. The energy margin is so thin for plastic, that if you wash the container out in coal-power-plant heated water, more carbon was emitted than saved in recycling that yogurt container. And recycled plastic rarely comes back in its original form; in other words, that yogurt container became an ice scraper, and a new one still had to be made for your next yogurt purchase. For glass, containers with high recycled content can save 10-15 percent of the energy needed to make them from virgin materials. And best of all are aluminum, paper and tin cans—these have a higher cost to extract or mill the products, and thus a higher payback for using recycled materials. In energy savings, aluminum is the best, as a can made of recycled materials requires 95 percent less energy.
All told, recycling in the USA prevents the release of 186 million tons of CO2 annually. To put that in perspective, the USA releases about 5.5 billion tons of CO2 per year from all domestic sources (not including our share of, say, the CO2 China emits in making stuff for us).
None of the Above
There’s a tremendous about of energy used, pollution generated and landscape altered to create these materials that we flippantly fail to reuse, instead tossing them into the trash or the recycling bin. What to do?
Here are some facts regarding US consumption and recycling—and lack thereof—of everyday items such as cans and paper, along with the potential savings from recycling.
Paper made from recycled content creates 74% less air pollution and 35% less water pollution; needs 43% less energy; and generates 33% less CO2, 50% less solid waste, and 50% less waste water (paper production is the leading cause of water pollution in the United States). Every pound of paper made from 100 percent recycled content saves 3.5 pounds of wood.