Is Recycling Worth It?

You know to “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.” But when it comes to disposing of your electronics, paper, plastics, glass and other waste, is recycling worth it?

Recycling Center

Recycling the materials you use can save a lot of resources, but placing more emphasis on reducing and reusing consumed items will help pare down our waste streams even more effectively.

Photo by Fotolia/Rafael Ben-Ari

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When Donald Sanderson, a former city councilman in Woodbury, N.J., led the effort to make recycling mandatory in the late 1970s, he was called names at city council meetings and criticized by the local press. Irate citizens dumped trash on his lawn. He persisted, however, and the law helped Woodbury save thousands of dollars in landfill costs, preventing the city from having to raise taxes or cut services.

Since then, the public’s perception of the value of giving waste a second life has itself transformed, and recycling has diverted dramatic amounts of garbage from landfills. By 2012, we were recycling or composting almost 35 percent of the 251 million tons of trash generated annually in the United States. That’s 87 million tons of solid waste, or the equivalent savings of more than 1.1 quadrillion Btu of energy — the amount of energy consumed by about 10 million U.S. households in a year.

Dylan de Thomas, editorial director of Resource Recycling, says recycling is no longer just an end-of-the-pipe process to save space in landfills. “More and more, people are looking at a product’s entire life cycle,” says de Thomas, referring to a growing movement known as “sustainable materials management.” “This includes how long a product lasts, what greenhouse gassing occurs during its usage, and then, at the end of its useful life, how to manage the material so that it can go to its highest and best use, such as a plastic bottle turned into another plastic bottle, as opposed to becoming a lower-quality item, such as strapping.”

Sustainable Materials Management

So, is recycling worth it? In short, yes. But, to keep it effective, the way we think about waste must shift away from mindless consumption. Even as we’re recycling more, we’re creating more garbage — 4.38 pounds per person per day in 2012, up 63 percent from 2.68 pounds in 1960. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the total amount of garbage for the same period increased by 183 percent, from 88.1 million tons in 1960 to 251 million tons in 2012.

To cut back on most materials, adopt a BYOC mentality: Bring Your Own Containers, such as cloth sacks or glass jars, to grocery stores for transporting produce, bulk foods, and meats and cheeses from the deli counter. Take containers to restaurants for carting home leftovers. Purchase reusable drink canisters. Try your hand at making your own condiments, body care concoctions and cleaning products. Read on to find extra reduction tips for when you can’t cut consumption.

When you do recycle, keep in mind that some substances are more worthwhile to recycle than others, depending on the energy required to extract the raw material, and the environmental footprint the substance leaves behind. Following is a list of materials, information about the worth of recycling each one, and tips for how to follow the Three R’s in the right order: reduce, reuse, and, finally, recycle.

Recycling Glass

Is it worth it? Absolutely. Glass is made from all-natural materials and can be recycled endlessly into new glass. Recycled glass can replace 95 percent of the raw materials needed to make new glass. Reusing 6 tons of recycled glass to form new glass reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 1 ton compared with using virgin materials. Recycling just 10 glass containers can save enough energy to operate a television for two hours and 13 minutes.

Reduce: Use bottle-deposit systems, such as those offered at some grocery stores for milk. Also, many breweries and some wineries allow customers to refill beverage bottles, as opposed to buying new bottles when purchasing from a liquor store.

Reuse: Glass jars can become all manner of useful household items, such as vases or stackable storage containers. And, of course, glass jars are some of the best vessels for delivering drinks from spout to mouth, and for storing your leftovers.

Recycle: Don’t toss non-container glass, such as light bulbs, window glass, ovenware or crystal, into the bin, as it can cause problems for processors of used glass containers. Instead, if it’s still intact, seek out local recycling alternatives, use it in a DIY project, or donate it to a secondhand store.

Recycling Metals

Is it worth it? Definitely. Most scrap aluminum cans are used to make new cans. Producing aluminum from raw materials is energy-intensive, and making products from recycled aluminum uses a whopping 90 percent less energy. Recycling just six aluminum cans saves enough energy to power an air conditioner for one hour, or a laptop computer for 31 hours.

Steel can also be recycled infinitely without any loss of quality, and recycling 1 ton of steel conserves 2,500 pounds of iron ore, 1,400 pounds of coal, and 120 pounds of limestone.

Reduce: Can your own foods in reusable glass canning jars, and cook dry beans purchased in bulk instead of buying their canned counterparts. Replace canned carbonated beverages with a home soda-making machine, such as the Sodastream. You can also buy recycled aluminum foil.

Reuse: You can wash and reuse aluminum foil and aluminum dishes and trays.

Recycle: Recycling aluminum is efficient, so salvage as much as you can. In some states, you can redeem aluminum cans for money, usually 5 to 10 cents apiece. To find out whether your state participates, look at Bottle Bills in the USA. For other metals, locate a local scrap yard that will take your scrap metal. You may receive cash for your efforts, and some metals, such as copper, are especially valuable.

Recycling Paper

Is it worth it? Yes. Every ton of recycled paper saves the energy equivalent of 165 gallons of gasoline, or enough energy to power the average U.S. home for six months. According to the EPA, recycling paper causes 35 percent less water pollution and 74 percent less air pollution than making paper from raw materials. Recycled paper supplies about one-third of the materials used to make other U.S. paper products, and paper can be recycled five to seven times before its fibers become too short.

Reduce: In lieu of paper towels, use washable rags to clean surfaces. Rather than buying new books, borrow them from the library or peruse a used-book store. Purchase recycled paper for your home and office, and print on both sides of a page before recycling it.

Reuse: Projects for reclaimed paper range from practical to ornamental. Used paper can become a pot for seedlings, or packing to place around delicate items you ship. You can even turn it into brand new paper; learn how in Making Paper at Home.

Recycle: You don’t need to remove staples. Keep paper with food residue out of your bin (compost it instead). Follow local guidelines, because you may need to sort different kinds of paper into different bins.

Recycling Plastics

Is it worth it? Barely. As pervasive as plastic is, the setup to recycle it is dismal, and plastic can only be recycled a finite number of times.

“At this point in time, plastics recycling is still a terribly inefficient and incomplete operation with little to no opportunity for recycling certain types of plastic in many communities,” writes Michael SanClements, an ecologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the author of Plastic Purge.

Plastics are made primarily from petroleum. In the United States, the average person disposes of almost 30 pounds of plastic bottles per year. By weight, plastics made up 13 percent of our total 251 million tons of trash in 2012, but only accounted for about 3 percent of what we recycled. We recycled only 9 percent of total plastic waste.

Because there are seven different types of plastic (indicated by the number, ranging from 1 to 7, stamped onto each product), sorting them properly is important. Mis-sorted plastics can contaminate the recycling stream and cause damage to recycling equipment.

Perhaps most dismaying of all, plastic never “goes away.” It breaks down into pieces too small to be seen by the naked eye. These particles find their way into our oceans, our food supply and our bodies. Even most so-called “biodegradable” plastics are environmentally harmful and only break down when subjected to heat in commercial facilities, where very few biodegradable plastics actually end up.

Reduce: Instead of bottled water, purchase a water filter and learn to love your tap water. Buy milk in returnable glass bottles. Replace plastic baggies with cloth alternatives. Bypass plastic shopping bags. Beth Terry, author of Plastic-Free, has many more tips for getting plastic out of your life on her blog, My Plastic Free Life.

Reuse: If you do use plastic baggies, wash and reuse them.

Recycle: While reducing plastic is especially vital, recycling it is still better than throwing it away. Follow local guidelines to learn which types of plastic your recycling facility will accept, and pay attention to the numbers on the containers and their corresponding receptacles.

Recycling Electronics

Is it worth it? Yes. Electronics components are a valuable resource: One million recycled cell phones can provide 35,000 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold, and 33 pounds of palladium. “Extracting metals from electronics results in significant greenhouse gas savings over having to take them from virgin sources,” says de Thomas.

Electronics must be recycled responsibly, or the costs could outweigh the benefits. Some e-waste recyclers outsource the heavy-metal extraction (and thus the toxicity involved) overseas to developing areas, which entails a host of environmental and human rights issues.

Reduce: Before discarding used electronics, try to have them repaired. Consider upgrading your computer’s hardware rather than buying an entirely new system.

Reuse: Locate donation bins for phones at electronics stores and phone retailers.

Recycle: Don’t just toss devices into the trash. Electronics that aren’t disposed of properly can leach heavy metals into the environment. Study the Electronics TakeBack Coalition’s Guide to Recycling Your Electronics, or refer to the EPA’s Electronics Donation and Recycling page to find a company near you that will accept your old computer, TV or mobile device.

Follow Five R’s: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot

The total annual household garbage for zero-waste zealot Bea Johnson fits into a quart jar, and she’s reduced her family’s recycling to a bare minimum, too. “We don’t buy food in packaging, we don’t use plastic, and we buy secondhand,” she says. “We found ourselves to be healthier, with more time and money,” living lives “based on experience rather than stuff.” Johnson, author of Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste, also writes about her lifestyle on her blog, Zero Waste Home.

The Johnsons follow the “Five R’s” (instead of the usual three) in order : Refuse what they don’t need, reduce what they do need, reuse by avoiding disposables and buying secondhand, recycle what they can’t refuse, and rot (compost) what’s left. While she hasn’t totally achieved her goal of producing absolutely no waste, Johnson says she’s elated by the power she has over her decisions. Her family lives in a 1,400-square-foot house in Marin County, across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, a city with a goal to go zero-waste by 2020.