Guide to Recycling

The environmental benefits of recycling plastic, aluminum, steel, cardboard, steel and glass.

| October/November 1995

  • recycling
    Most cities now have some type of recycling program.

  • recycling

You've heard the old saw too many times already: "Americans have been conditioned to accept a throwaway lifestyle." In the brief flurry of environmental enthusiasm of the first few years of the decade, many recognized that statement, however overused, to be true, and the recycling boom was born. An encouraging start found it difficult to stand the test of years, and paper, plastic, and metal recycling rates have begun to level off. It's disappointing, but not surprising. The regimen of separating, bundling, and disposing is made even more complicated by collection ordinances that often defy understanding. Consumers have little incentive to recycle because just how the external cost of packaging is reflected in market prices is not always clear to us. And often, market prices don't reflect dwindling mineral supplies. Because of government funding to mining companies, consumers have no incentive to reduce demand soon enough to avoid economic depletion of minerals.

Mining and energy industries get large tax breaks, depletion allowances, and other tax-supported federal subsidies. These subsidies encourage mining and energy industries to get virgin resources out of the ground as quickly as possible. Low mineral prices—supported by government funding—fail to include external costs of mining and processing; encourage resource waste, faster depletion, and more pollution and environmental degradation.

By contrast, recycling industries get few tax breaks and other subsidies. Actually, the lack of large, steady markets for recycled materials also makes recycling a risky business. It becomes a financial venture that attracts little investment capital. But the battle continues.


Consumers in the United States throw away enough aluminum to rebuild the country’s airline fleet every three months. Despite a growing market trend towards recycling one particular aluminum product, the can, the vast majority of this resource is still wasted. And what’s more, the U.S. has virtually no reserves should a sudden military or industrial need present itself. Our aluminum is currently imported largely from Jamaica and Australia because it is simply consumed more rapidly than domestic supplies can keep up with. Additionally, Other countries have higher-grad ore deposits that are cheaper to extract than lower-grade U.S. reserves.


Plastics are made from petroleum and natural gas. They account for about 7 percent of the weight of municipal solid waste in the United States. They are the fastest-growing type of waste by weight in landfills. Most plastics used today are either virtually nonbiodegradable or take some 200 to 400 years to degrade in landfills.

Despite what you may have heard, only 1 percent of all plastic wastes and 4 percent of plastic packaging is recycled. Many plastic products today carry a label saying they are biodegradable or recyclable. While his statement is technically true, it is also highly misleading. Plastics degrade very slowly in landfills, and 99 percent of all plastic waste is not recycled.


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