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The Recycling Controversy
It is said the world is ending. With each passing day we bring our planet closer to destruction, polluting it and squandering its natural resources. Everywhere you go, you here about natural imbalance, water shortages, and the dreaded Global Warming crisis. This can't go on, so it's up to us to stop it. And what better, easier way to do your part than to recycle?
Recycling is the obvious solution for many people looking to save the world, relieve a guilty conscience, or quiet their annoyingly zealous environmentalist neighbor, without having to do any real work. Just throw all your recyclables in a box, throw it in the back of your car, and drop it off at the recycling station on your way to the grocery store.
Unfortunately, some things are too good to be true. Recycling isn't going to save the world. In fact, it turns out it might not be helping at all – and could even be making things worse.
At first glance, recycling seems a good solution. If we are polluting the world and running out of resources, reusing materials and preventing the need of generating more pollutants by producing new products is obviously a good move. Also, we are allegedly running out of landfill space, and so stopping trash from ending up in landfill seems like a good idea. Is this the truth, though, or is it simply what we want to hear?
In a manner similar to medieval Christians buying indulgences from priests to be forgiven for their sins without actually doing anything, recycling may be something we believe to be right and effective simply because we've been told it is – and more importantly, it's convenient. However, just as it made no sense for priests to hand out absolution for money, it makes no sense to do something that could be harming the Earth because we've been told to. When an “absolved” Christian lay on his deathbed, suddenly the indulgence didn't seem to matter so much. When the world falls to pieces around us, will it matter who we pleased by recycling?
Researching the question, some have come to hold a differing point of view. Apparently, collecting recyclables, preparing them, and converting them into new products can consume more energy and cause more pollution than using fresh material. As for landfill, it turns out we are not running out – not even close. We have plenty of space, and many communities welcome landfills as a source of jobs and tax revenue. Recycling also takes large amounts of money that could be spent on more useful environmental endeavors. From this point of view, recycling is not only a waste of time, but is actually counterproductive.
So, who's right? Is recycling good or bad? Of course, the answer isn't so simple. Recycling is helpful in some ways, harmful in others, and whether it is more one than the other can depend on certain variable factors, such as the material being recycled, your location, and the sophistication of your local recycling facility's technology.
Does recycling cause excess pollution and waste energy? For the most part, no. In some areas where technology levels are very low, or where people are inexperienced at recycling, energy may be wasted, but these days this is rare. An exception is if you live in a community far from a recycling facility, in which case the process of transporting the recyclables can take more energy than it's worth. Also, certain materials are better than others as far as recycling goes. Colorless glass, tin, and aluminum are easily recycled and converted into usable material, but plastic is usually hard to divide properly, and this process can waste energy. Paper, especially newspapers, are nearly always beneficial to recycle.
Is landfill a concern? This is controversial. It is true that we are not running out of space, and will not be for a long time to come. However, once a plot of land is consigned to landfill, it is effectively dead; the garbage thoroughly contaminates the land, and even if the garbage is cleared off, the land will not be usable for a long time, if ever. With a growing population and concern for endangered species rising, wasting land is not pragmatic. Landfill is also a source of pollution, and while landfill facilities are becoming better at containing this pollution, preventing it in the first place is obviously better.
As for money, it is true that recycling programs are rarely a wise financial investment. However, garbage collection programs are mostly the same. The garbage still has to be disposed of, though. If you are concerned about the financial cost of recycling, the same materials that can be recycled cleanly – glass, metal, paper, etc. – are often also the cheapest to recycle. Plastic and cardboard juice boxes are harder to process and have a higher cost to recycle.
All in all, recycling is still largely the right choice, unless you live in a remote or low-technology area. Juice boxes are best thrown out. Plastic, however, can often be reused easily without being brought to a recycling center: plastic shopping bags can be used as garbage liners, drinking bottles can be refilled, and milk jugs with the top cut off make sturdy, though admittedly not beautiful, plant holders.
So, if you want to do what's best for the world – environmentally and economically – recycle paper and metal, throw out mixed materials and unusable plastics, and reuse anything you can yourself.