I know that this is a mundane question for many people; the benefits so obvious that they want to laugh at anybody silly enough to ask it. Truth is though, 23% of Americans don’t recycle anything. A full third of Americans don’t recycle aluminum cans, and up to 43% don’t recycle paper or plastic.
Reasons cited are laziness, belief that recycling does nothing, expense, and unavailability of services. I was raised firmly in the laziness camp. Recycling was not something my family articulated was important. My husband was raised in a midwestern county that didn’t require separation of recyclable materials from garbage, so he never developed the habit.
Also, while 77% of people recycle something, they don't always do so consistently. I know that at my friend’s house, they have a bin in the garage for aluminum cans. But while hanging out with them upstairs, they often just toss them in the trash. Too long to walk, too cold outside. This is probably more common than we’d like to admit.
It's helpful to remind ourselves, then, why recycling is important.
1. Recycling Conserves Energy
The first thing I think of considering the benefits of recycling is the reuse of materials, but I've discovered that something MUCH more important are the energy implications.
Producing anything requires a lot of energy. You’ve got to obtain and process the original resource via logging or mining. Then you've got to lug it around to one or more places to transform it into a consumeable good. Then you've got to lug it to the stores to retail. However, the energy required to lug it around is often small in comparison to the energy needed to obtain the raw materials in the first place.
For example, aluminum comes out of the ground as something called aluminum ore. Aluminum ore only contains 3-5% of actual Aluminum, the rest is essentially dirt. In order to extract the mineral, all of the ore is heated to extremely high temperatures (the melting point of aluminum is 1220.58° F). This process takes an insane amount of energy, and has to melt a large quantity of materials. At the end of the process, you have some aluminum ready to punch cans out of, but you also have a ton of needlessly hot dirt.
Recycling cans also requires melting down the cans to produce a new metal sheet, but the process is 95% more efficient because the materials being heated are nearly pure aluminum, with no other dirt or other garbage mixed in. This is an outstanding efficiency gain. Similar stories can be told about paper, cardboard, and other raw materials.
Overall, recycling something will reduce the energy required to make another version of that product by 80-95%. It’s worth doing simply for that reason.
2. Waste Disposal contributes to global warming
What do you do with garbage? Ask the residents of Naples, Italy. Their final landfill filled up last spring, and for months this summer their beautiful city was neck deep in refuse.
Around the Puget Sound, trash is usually dealt with in one of two ways: it travels a long distance to a landfill, or its burned.
King County, where I live, has only one landfill left, that is forecasted to reach capacity and close in 2012. Already, a large amount of King County’s waste is being exported by train to landfills near Portland, Oregon. My garbage travels 175 miles to finally get buried? Gives new meaning to the STP (Seattle to Portland bike race). It’s retracing the route my daily waste travels.
Land filling is also a contributor to global warming. As trash decomposes, it creates a gas called methane, which is just as much of a contributor to global warming as the much maligned CO2.
Burning waste avoids the need to put trash in landfills, and it has one other great benefit: it can produce power! 14% of the solid waste in the US is burned. Burning waste is similar to burning coal, except you need four times as much of it to produce the same amount of power.
But what about pollution? An older study states that emissions of a waste incineration plant are less than a coal plant, but greater than natural gas plant. Over the last decade, however, many enhancements have been made to waste-to-energy (WTE) technology in the last decade where some of these plants call themselves “emissions free”. This is a very controversial claim, as many of the toxic chemicals end up going into the ash created by incineration, which leaks into the atmosphere over time anyway (or into the water supply). Overall, the jury is still out on this technique.
Still, there is no doubt that incinerating trash is much better, pound for pound, for the greenhouse effect than land filling trash. “In the landfill, one tonne of [trash] would produce approximately 62 m³ methane by anaerobic digestion of the biodegradable part of the waste. This amount of methane has more than twice the global warming potential than the one tonne of CO2, which would have been produced by incineration.” [Source: http://www.seas.columbia.edu/earth/papers/global_waste_to_energy.html]
Regardless of its processing technique, the waste that goes out your door is going to pollute the atmosphere. It makes sense to reduce the quantity as much as we can.
3. Recycling Conserves Resources
Finally, the traditionally cited reason for recycling. While the energy and global warming implications of recycling are much more compelling, resource conversation is still an excellent benefit.
Paper and Cardboard require trees. While trees are a renewable resource, they are super useful for things like taking CO2 out of the air and providing us with oxygen to breath. We should try to keep as many of them around as possible.
Plastics require oil, and we all know the troubles around that resource. Glass requires….um….sand and limestone? Aluminum cans need aluminum. These three resources are finite, and the processes required to extract them from the earth are pretty intrusive, risk lives, and leave a big environmental scar. It only makes sense to reuse the materials we’ve already gotten out when possible.
Now that I understand the implications of not recycling, I am horrified at my past behavior. A couple of times, I tossed aluminum cans into the trash in front of my recycling-friendly friends just to torture them. They would give me a long suffering look before resignedly going to fish the can out of the trash on my behalf. And I would wonder out loud why they were so doggedly devoted.
I'm no longer ignorant. The damage being done with that single lazy action was invisible to me in the past, but is now fully unveiled.
I'm presently working on creating a recycling system for our home that will allow us to efficiently and confidently recycle the maximum amount of materials. More on this to come soon.