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
  • Recycled Goods
    Recycled goods are more valuable than trash, as the raw materials can be re-sold.
    Photo by SuperStock/Cultura Limited
  • Recycling Electronics
    Electronics are the fastest-growing element of waste streams worldwide.
    Photo by iStock/Baranozdemir
  • Collecting Plastic
    The pervasiveness of plastic is especially apparent in places where it tends to collect, such as along coasts and in the oceans.
    Photo by Dreamstime/Bidouze Stéphane
  • Recycling Paper
    Recycling paper is a no-brainer: According to the EPA, 1 ton of recycled paper saves 17 trees, 7,000 gallons of water, and 463 gallons of oil, compared with using pristine pulp.
    Photo by Dreamstime/Cepixx
  • Zero Waste Home
    The Johnsons fill jars with family favorites while avoiding wasteful packaging, which creates an appealing pantry.
    Photo by Zero Waste Home

  • Recycling Center
  • Recycled Goods
  • Recycling Electronics
  • Collecting Plastic
  • Recycling Paper
  • Zero Waste Home

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.

3/6/2021 11:49:33 AM

There is a fourth “R” that I learned from zero waste blogger: Refuse. She puts this first among the Rs. In friendly, practical terms, it means letting my family know that we prefer wood toys over plastic for holiday gifts for the kids. It means letting restaurant workers know, BEFORE they automatically give them, that we will not be needing the plastic ice cream spoons, or the plastic straws in our drinks. It’s my favorite of the R’s because it proactively reduces waste, and communicates our values to others on a regular basis. Little things can make a difference!

5/5/2018 8:15:03 AM

I have been reading Mother Earth News for years and I have had ideas of making my collection of house waste in my neighborhood a starting place. So I open an Auction House to bring my neighbors together three times a week, while inviting them to bring their household waste. I would then separate by items and put everything to the use it was made for. Now I live in Charlotte NC and wish I could get a large building to start this program again, because Charlotte could use a business like this in the city.

1/23/2018 8:19:15 PM

I didn't realize that we were so far advanced than a great part of the country. Some communities have no curbside collections at all. That and Oregon had to raise the deposit to get more people to recycle. Incredible.

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