Recycling: Is It Really Green?

In an earlier article about the debate of the validity of recycling, the first step of many who want to green their lifestyles and shrink their CO2 (carbon) footprint, we highlighted several general pros and anti-recycling arguments.   Interested in really understanding the recycling benefits of what you are now doing?

Now let’s bury our heads deeper into this topic to fully understand this potentially “ecologically-sound” and “moral high ground” practice (yay, that rhythms). Let’s listen to the argument for and against the benefits of recycling.

At first glance, it is easy to get lost in the “how best” to reduce your carbon footprint discussion. Oftentimes, people jump right into the practicality of installing solar panels or buying an electric charge. All premature “big” steps.

The EPA claims that recycling saves energy and conserves natural resources such as timber, oil, and minerals. On the other hand, in widely read 1996 New York Times anti-recycling article  “Recycling Is Garbage”  the article points out claims that many plastics take up less room in a landfill than biodegradable items (thus do not recycle plastic) and it isn’t worth the money that’s spent by our governments to recycling with all the other more important social and environmental problems at hand.

It also points out that the energy to make a ceramic mug and wash it each time equates to 1000 styrofoam cups – finding that its better to just use these cups.   I don’t buy it! This lengthy magazine article covered a lot of perspectives on recycling, and it burst my bubble about the glories of recycling.

As I was reading it, I had the minor epiphany that the merits of recycling just depend on the specs of any one program.   Many of these so-called pro- and anti-recycling arguments are taken out of context or measure a tiny sliver. The best and perhaps only way to view recycling may be through the context in which it is being carried out.recycling codes

For example, do you live in a small town where your waste is transported a considerable distance to the nearest incineration plant or landfill?  After the energy consumed in transportation are there really any recycling benefits?

Would the expense of employing waste management (cost of recycling collecting and sorting) workers in your area be better spent on some other environmental challenge? Does your community recycling program accept aluminum products, which are consistently deemed worth recycling?

In other words, any two recycling programs can mitigate environmental impacts much differently (or not mitigate environmental impacts at all) depending on the characteristics of the program.

And even after all of that is said and done, people can still always disagree on the value of recycling programs.  Personally, I think recycling delivers a significant positive step in the right direction – for the most part there are recycling benefits and it is a critical first phase in any person’s plan to reduce his/her carbon footprint.

One may say they are valid environmental measures, whereas another may say that environmental-earmarked funds can be better invested in other green programs, like energy efficiency standards or renewable energy projects.  Even others may say taxes on waste are the best way to incentive recycling and reduce consumption.

Sustainable Living

Recycling is not a one size fits all solution, there is no one solution on how and to what degree our communities should recycle. and we should not be doing it just to keep the volume down going to landfills.  Recycling benefits can be vastly different between communities.

Eventually, the various recycling systems around the globe will mature and strike a more effective balance based on a few decades of experience and changing consumer habits.

Recycling impacts many of our purchase decisions and studies have shown that if we are handling the sorting ourselves and paying directly to have it hauled away, our purchase decisions are impacted and we generate less trash.

If you want to become more insightful on what really happens to your trash, read Garbage Land: On The Secret Trail of Trash by Elizabeth Royte – its amazing how trash much we product without any real effort and its there for decades afterwards.

The Green Blizzard homepage displays 30-40 go green, green lifestyle articles, check it out. There are other articles about the recycling benefits.

kennyA few other Green Blizzard articles about recycling: Carbon Footprint of Food Waste,  Reusable Coffee Mug, Making Sense Out Of Those Recycling Codes, and Best Gifts For A Green Handyman.

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About the author

Kenny Frankel

As graduate of the University of Maryland, Kenny has a major in Environmental Politics and Policy, so he's undoubtedly a guy well versed in environmental issues. Now, post college he is a practitioner of sustainable living and employed by solar installation company. We all will have a deeper green perspective after reading his articles because he brings a big picture insight to our everyday purchase decisions and even recycling.  As an early staff writer for Green Blizzard, Kenny covers environmental policy, big-agricultures impact on the environment, solar energy, recycling, and products made from recycled materials.

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