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The Deception of Curbside Recycling

Reduce, reuse, recycle – that’s a slogan we see often these days. In practice, it’s the “recycle” part that gets the most attention. In fact, more people recycle than vote in the United States, according to Samantha Macbride in her book Recycling Reconsidered. (Macbride 9) Curbside recycling of household waste has become an accepted part of our everyday life. And at first glance, that appears to be a good thing. However, a closer look reveals that curbside recycling is not a desirable solution to our waste problem. First, in monetary terms, the cost of curbside recycling outweighs any financial gain. Second, the recycling process actually wastes more natural resources than it saves. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the widespread promotion of curbside recycling causes an over-reliance on this flawed process, in effect giving us license to waste with abandon. For these three reasons --economic, environmental, and experiential—curbside recycling is not the answer. We can do a better job of preserving our environment by focusing on reducing and reusing, rather than recycling.
Let’s talk first about the economic impact. To put it simply, curbside recycling is not cheap. Jeff Jacoby, columnist for the Boston Globe, states that, “Most of the stuff we throw out — aluminum cans are an exception — is cheaper to replace from scratch than to recycle.” (Jacoby, Waste) This is because of the costs associated with collecting, sorting, cleaning, and processing. No material is simple to recycle, the World Book Science Supplement explains. Plastic is the most complicated, as it is composed of many different strands of polymers that are hard to break down and reuse. (World Book 89-102). Ever looked at the bottom of your plastic bottles and seen a number? Those numbers tell what type of plastic has been used. In Fairfax County Virginia, where I live, only certain plastic bottles are accepted at recycling centers. (Fairfax County) Chances are, your plant likewise does not recycle all seven types. These restrictions allude to the complexity and expense of the multi-step process for plastic recycling. Glass is more easily handled, but the variety of colors and opacities makes sorting expensive and time-consuming, as Jeff Jacoby reports. For all categories of recyclables, considerable manpower is required to collect and sort, and a great deal of water electricity are necessary to clean the items. Given this variety of complications, it should not be surprising that recycling of all materials other than aluminum results in a net financial loss. (Jacoby, Waste) This opinion is supported by Judd Alexander, a former chairman for Keep American Beautiful. He reported in 1995 that New York City spent 77 million dollars a year to recycle a mere 15 percent of household trash. (Alexander) Jay Lehr, the science director at the Heartland Institute, agrees: "There is not a community curbside recycling program in the United States that covers its cost.”(Jacoby, Get Excited)
You might say, “It doesn’t matter how much it costs in monetary terms, recycling is worth it because it protects the environment.” Indeed, the purpose of curbside recycling is to reduce the harmful effect we have on the environment. But shockingly, recycling actually puts dangerous toxins and chemicals into the environment. Let’s look at paper recycling as an example. According to the Clean Water Action Council of Wisconsin, that process creates hazardous by-products: “Approximately 250 tons of PCBs [well-known cancer-causing chemicals] were dumped into the Fox River … by paper recycling industries.” (Clean Water Council) Let me put this into perspective: 250 tons is more that the total amount of trash produced in the United States in one year, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. (EPA) Paper recycling creates other environmental waste as well: pulping machines are easily clogged by residue and gloss on the paper products. Enormous amounts of water and energy are required for these machines to operate properly, giving rise to a whole new set of pollution issues, according to World Book. (World Book) Plastic recycling, too, provides a dramatic example of the environmental harms of recycling processes. The necessary shredding and melting causes harmful toxins to be released, which is not surprising considering that plastics are themselves highly synthetic substances. The organization Eureka Recycling writes, “Recycling of plastic…is associated with skin and respiratory problems, resulting from exposure to and inhalation of toxic fumes…released during the process.” (Eureka Recycling) Thus, a thoughtful look at recycling shows that, far from benefitting the environment, it wastes water and energy and produces dangerous by-products.
These sobering facts about the economic and environmental detriments of curbside recycling might, however, not be enough to decrease our reliance on it. This is because, as many have observed, recycling has almost become an end in itself. Even though curbside recycling stems from a praiseworthy desire to protect our environment, it tends to justify our wasteful use of resources. Some trash companies offer incentives for customers to recycle based on the weight of the recycling bin! (AAA Trash). John Tierney, writing for the New York Times Magazine, observed, “We're not just [recycling]; we're performing a rite of atonement for the sin of excess.” (Tierney) Perhaps that is why, ironically, curbside recycling makes it so simple to ignore the amount of resources we waste in our households. We can find comfort in thinking, “Well, this will be recycled, so it’s okay.” This is a dangerous attitude.
I think you can see the truth in John Tierney’s comment that “Recycling may be the most wasteful activity in modern America: a waste of time and money, a waste of human and natural resources.” (Tierney) So how can we change the way we view recycling and better preserve the environment? Starting with the facts about recycling’s deficiencies and deceptions, we can strive to remember and promote the other two “Rs”—reuse and reduce—to help diminish the effect our waste has on the Earth. So first, let’s look at reuse. Now to most of us, this seems like an obvious point. Instead of buying a single-use item and throwing it away or into the recycling bin, buy something that can be reused. For example, instead of using plastic water bottles, my family uses – and reuses -- the metal bottles. As a bonus, these durable bottles come in lots of fun colors and patterns! If you no longer have use for an item, share it. The internet makes this simple to do with sites such as Freecycle and Craigslist. Someone else may need what you don’t. A different, but excellent, example of reuse can be seen at Costco. If you have ever been to this mega-store, you will know that they do not provide bags for groceries. Instead, the stores have a huge stack of empty boxes from merchandise, ready for reuse by customers. Most stores tear down and package these boxes for – you guessed it – recycling. And did you know that shredded paper can go into compost? As the Sierra Club explains, that is a simple and earth-friendly re-use. (Sierra Club) These are just a few examples highlighting reuse rather than recycle.
Finally, we can help our environment with that final “R”: reducing the amount of resources we use. At home, this applies to using supplies wisely. A good idea to remember is to use what you need, and nothing more. When it comes to wasting materials, manufacturers are also at fault. I have seen swimsuits being sold individually on big sheets of plastic shaped like a person. While this creates an interesting display, it produces an excessive amount of plastic waste. But there is good news: in response to consumer concerns, manufacturers have begun to pay attention to the goal of reduction. Thus, you may have noticed that individual yogurt containers no longer have plastic lids. Plasticnews.com reported in 2005 that Dannon decided to replace plastic lids on its individual yogurt containers with foil, saving over 1,500 tons of plastic. (Plastic News) Likewise responding to consumer input, Aquafina not only dramatically reduced the amount of plastic used in its water bottles in 2009, but also the amount of corrugated cardboard used in its shipping pallets, Earth911 reports. As we increase our concern about reduction, more manufacturers will follow suit. By remembering the other two “Rs”— Reuse, and Reduce—we can decrease the amount of waste we need to recycle or send to landfill. We can make a difference and help the environment.
In conclusion, we are to be good stewards of the Earth and all it contains. Through recycling, this task has fallen to the wayside as we have unintentionally polluted the air and wasted resources in our attempt to protect the environment. Curbside recycling is not the answer as it impedes our economic growth, hurts our environment, and lulls us into a false sense of security. We need to find alternatives to this wasteful practice. Instead, if we choose to reuse what we have instead of throwing it away, reduce the amount of resources we use, and let manufacturers know of our concerns for the environment, then we will be taking important steps to help change the process and be good stewards of our Earth and its resources.



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samalama said...
Sep. 18 at 12:02 am:
You lost me at "250 tons is more than the total amount of trash produced in the United States in one year according to the EPA."  ...not even close.  I wanted to pass this article around but my friends would see through that.  If you could just strike that one sentence... .  Use this:  250 tons is the weight of a jumbo jet.  Actually, the U. S. produces closer to 250 MILLION tons per year-- way more than the Fox River PCBs.  Other than that, I'm w... (more »)
 
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