Recycling may not be the waste cure-all we thought it was

By: Portia Bharath, Columnist

When we recycle our cans, bottles and cardboard, we can only hope that it all goes to a facility where the materials are, well, recycled. But are they? More importantly: is recycling merely a feel-good practice that isn’t actually beneficial? Surprisingly, there is a rather convincing case against recycling.

America is producing more waste than ever, but most of our recycled waste has been shipped to China for processing since 1992, because it is economically more efficient for us to send it overseas than it is for us to process it ourselves. But China has recently become highly selective about the waste they import from the U.S. due to concern for the health of its people (and rightfully so).

However, this increases the cost for U.S. cities to recycle, which gives local municipalities two choices: pay more to collect and prepare the materials (a 63 percent price increase for one Virginia city) or simply send them to landfill, which costs half as much. In particularly poverty-stricken cities, the decision is a no-brainer, especially since nobody is ever prepared for a tax upsurge. Now that the “market” for recyclables is diminishing, those materials are either being siphoned off to landfills or redirected to the incinerator.

Critics argue that recycling has never had any economic benefit, and now even more so. Aluminum is the most profitable resource to recycling companies, which receive nearly four times as much money for a ton of recycled aluminum than for a ton of PET plastic – and for production companies which save 92 percent of the energy it would take to make a new beverage can . Plastics are not as profitable, costing only a few cents more than new plastic, but small amounts add up when manufacturing companies are churning out millions of units every day.

Lack of knowledge about what can and can’t be recycled costs recycling companies extra time and money, because the machinery is sensitive to things like plastic bags that should not have ended up at the facility. The workers must hand-pick contaminating items like Styrofoam cups and batteries from the piles to send them to the landfill. The argument also exists that landfills really aren’t that big of an issue, and the U.S. has enough land to support the current production rate of trash for the next 1,000 years, not to mention that many cities stand to make a lot of money from stockpiling the country’s waste. After a landfill is properly conditioned, it may even be able to support something like a stadium so that the plot of land is not rendered entirely useless after its life as a garbage dump.

As hard as it is to ignore the cost-benefit analysis of recycling, eliminating the viewpoint that recycling needs to be profitable can open one’s eyes as to why it might not be such a bad practice. Recycling may not garner the support of the limitless profit-seeking world of business – but for me, it comes down to the principle of the matter: why throw something away forever when it could serve a second or even limitless purpose?

The slogan “reduce, reuse, recycle” – although trite – truly encompasses what our disposable-driven society should aim for. I am uncomfortable with the idea that every initiative should be looked at strictly from an economic perspective because it disregards the potential humanitarian benefits, and the tunnel vision effect blocks out any genuine concern for our environmental future. I would also like to point out that landfills are one of the biggest sources of soil pollution from leachate, and those toxic pollutants often find their way into the groundwater. They are also large emitters of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Yes, we may have ample space for garbage heaps, but that doesn’t mean we should necessarily start mindlessly tossing all our waste into them – physical space is not the only issue we need to consider.

Another factor is that many large landfills are not close in proximity to the country’s most dense cities – it’s becoming more expensive to truck all that waste back and forth across the country, in addition to the amount of carbon dioxide pollution it will produce. Instead of spending more money to permanently trash our waste, we could channel that same amount of time and energy into improving our recycling practices. Perhaps if we focused more intensely on educating people about how to properly recycle, the whole system would become more efficient and we wouldn’t need to rely on landfills so much. We should not underestimate people’s willingness to help out in a situation as long as they know how best to proceed.

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