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Because You Asked

Is Recycling Worth the Expense and Emissions?

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Recycling one aluminum can saves 92% of the energy to make one from scratch. That’s just one example of why recycling is worth the effort.

Today’s Because You Asked post was written by and is republished with permission from EarthTalk®, from the editors of E – The Environmental Magazine.


Dear EarthTalk: Is recycling still worthwhile given the expense and emissions associated with it? –Michael V., Norwalk, OH


Dear Will: Americans generate about 254 million tons of trash and recycle and compost about 87 million tons of this material, which adds up to a 34.3 percent national recycling rate. Recycling and composting prevented the release of approximately 186 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2013, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, comparable to taking over 39 million cars off the road for a year.


Aluminum cans are currently recycled more than any other beverage container in the U.S, which is good for business and the environment, says the Aluminum Association, because making a can from recycled aluminum saves not only aluminum, but also 92 percent of the energy required to make a new can. A 2015 analysis by the Aluminum Association and the Can Manufacturers Institute determined that if all of the aluminum cans in the U.S. were recycled, we could power four million homes and save $800 million per year. Aluminum cans are also the most valuable to recycling companies, with a value of $1,491 per ton compared to $385 per ton for PET plastic. “Cans are recycled at the highest rates, and drive recycling programs across the country because of the high value of aluminum compared to other packaging materials,” said Heidi Brock, President and CEO of the Aluminum Association.


In recent years, however, recycling companies are struggling with higher processing costs, due in part to newer, larger recycling bins that don’t require user sorting and thus become increasingly contaminated with garbage. When the District of Columbia replaced residents’ 32-gallon bins with ones that were 50 percent larger last year, the extensive amount of non-recyclable material put into the bins drove up the city’s processing cost for recyclables and cut profits from selling recyclables by more than 50 percent.


“Our biggest concern and our biggest challenge today is municipal solid waste and contamination in our inbound stream,” James Delvin, CEO of ReCommunity Recycling, told Green is Good Radio. “It’s an economic issue if you think about [how] we go through all this effort to process this material, and roughly 15 to 20 percent of what we process ends up going back to the landfill. It’s incredibly inefficient to do that.” In a 2014 survey by the National Waste and Recycling Association, nearly one in ten Americans admitted to throwing their waste in recycling bins when trash cans were full; one in five said they will place an item in a recycling container even if they are not completely sure it is recyclable.


“People refer to this as ‘wishful recycling,’ that’s just when in doubt, put this in the bin because there’s an outside chance they might be able to recycle it,” Delvin notes. “So you see Styrofoam. You see PVC. You see batteries and those types of things….” This mixing of waste with recyclables, he says, makes it very difficult to extract the true recyclable commodities that are there that have value.


Improved education regarding the proper materials to recycle is needed to allow recycling plants to remain economically feasible. While there’s still work to be done in the recycling world to make it consistently profitable, there’s never an argument over the environmental benefits of reducing waste that goes to landfills by recycling, limiting disposable packaging, and utilizing more durable reusable goods, like shopping bags, coffee thermoses, and water bottles in your daily life.


SOURCES: Aluminum Association, Can Manufacturers Institute, Green Is Good Radio, National Waste and Recycling Association, ReCommunity Recycling



How do you make keep trash out of your bin and ensure your recycling efforts don’t go to waste? Share with us in the comments!

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EarthTalk, from the Editors of E - The Environmental Magazine
EarthTalk, from the Editors of E - The Environmental Magazine
EarthTalk is produced by Doug Moss and Roddy Scheer and is a registered trademark of Earth Action Network Inc.  more
  • wayne w. 26 days ago
    Follow the directions set forth by our local refuse stakeholders! Do my part and share my knowledge with others concerning the 3Rs!
    It matters to me.
  • Sue T. 26 days ago
    I can just imagine! I volunteer at our church's thrift store and bring home the "recycling" on the days I work. You wouldn't believe the trash I have to pull out before I can put it in my recycle bin! I think a lot of people just don't care. My motto is "when in doubt, throw it out" when it comes to putting things in my recycle bin that are questionable.
  • tommy b. 28 days ago
  • Emily B. 28 days ago
    If China rejects our "garbage", what will happen?
  • Susan B. 28 days ago
    Education is definitely needed. I needed to call 911 not long ago when I fell, and one of the firemen used a paper towel to mop up something that had broken when I fell and then tossed the whole mess in a small cardboard box. He was going to put it in my recycling bin until I stopped him - said he always tossed cardboard in recycling even if it was greasy or contaminated, like pizza boxes. I told him he needed to stop doing that. Not sure if he got the message completely, but I had to try.
    • Karen K. 2 days ago
      I was astonished when I learned our recycling now accepts pizza boxes. Even so, if they're too greasy, I still toss 'em rather than recycle. One good question: How much is 'acceptable' grease?
    • Susan B. 2 days ago
      An excellent question. Let us know if you get clarification. As far as I know, ours still won't accept any grease-stained cardboard. I haven't gotten a clarification on boxes with metallic printed designs - I know they don't want metallic wrapping paper, but not clear if that goes for cardboard.
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