Can recycling save our environment?
Reduce, reuse, recyle. It's not a mantra, it's a hierarchy. There are cons to recycling, including the amout of energy consumed in the recycling process.
After preparing a tasty meal, you toss one of your used cans into the blue recycling bin. As it arcs through the air, it glints with the light from your energy-efficient fluorescent light bulbs for a moment before it lands with a satisfying clang.
With a smug smile on your face you lug your blue bin out to the curb, happy in the knowledge that recycling helps to save the environment–or does it?
Many of us recycle religiously, but are unaware that recycling is not the ultimate panacea when it comes to saving our environment and the fight against global warming.
An Energy Trade-Off
Just think of all the energy consumed in the recycling process:
Don’t get the wrong idea, recycling can save energy and the environment, but it depends on the material and situation. Environmental policy analysts Alexander Volokh and Lynn Scarlett studied recycling initiatives in the US and came to an interesting conclusion: “Like all other activities, recycling makes economic and environmental sense in some cases and not in others...The challenge is to figure out how to tell which cases are which.”
Recycled paper supplies almost 40 percent of the fibre used to make new paper. We’re constantly told that saving even a small amount of energy is a good thing. But does this benefit outweigh the environmental cost?
When recycling paper, the de-inking process produces a chemical sludge. This toxic byproduct can cause water pollution if not disposed of properly. Ghislain Bolduc, manager of a paper recycling plant, tells Chemical Marketing Reporter, “For every ton of mixed office waste paper that we de-ink, we create roughly one ton of sludge.”
Contrary to popular belief, we don’t need to recycle paper to save our trees. Unlike some other materials, trees are a renewable resource–if managed properly. Some forestry companies would rather clear-cut virgin stands of old growth trees than waste time and money on replanting.
But there are initiatives for better standards. The Forest Stewardship Council, for example, is a stakeholder-owned organization that promotes responsible forest management worldwide. By controlling our forests, we can continue to sustain and harvest this renewable resource without worrying that we’ll run out of trees.
So if recycling paper isn’t as eco-friendly as we’d hoped, what about other materials?
Glass is best recycled because it cannot be burned and takes over 4,000 years to decompose. But as with paper, only 40 percent of the energy is saved by recycling.
Steel and Aluminum recycling saves high amounts of energy (recycled aluminum saves an astounding 95 percent), but most metallic waste comes from industries such as construction and mining. Most big companies do recycle, but the average household recycles a relatively small amount.
Plastic recycling saves fossil fuels and keeps plastic packaging out of our landfills. However, considering the amount of bad plastics out there that leach chemicals into your food and water, you’re far better off reducing the amount of plastic in your home.
Recycling–a Last Resort
Ultimately, recycling mostly makes us feel good and gives us the psychological benefit of knowing we’re doing our small part to save our planet. The commercial and manufacturing sectors also love recycling because it means they can keep making products and we can keep consuming them.
But, as environmentalist William McDonough says in his book Cradle to Cradle (North Point Press, 2002), “Recycling is an aspirin, alleviating a rather large collective hangover of overconsumption.”
We are repeatedly told to reduce, reuse, and recycle, but how many of us get hung up on the final R? Reduce, reuse, recycle is not a mantra, it’s a hierarchy–and reducing comes first. According to McDonough, “The best way to reduce any environmental impact is not to recycle more, but to produce and dispose of less.”
If we’re going to alleviate global warming, recycling alone just won’t cut it. We need to make fundamental changes to our lifestyles and consumption patterns. Being eco-friendly doesn’t mean you have to renounce all your world’s possessions or join a hippie commune–all it takes is a little imagination to think outside the blue box.
There are many simple ways to put that first R into action and cut back on waste:
There are also many practical ways to reuse products:
The Recycling Process
Where does all that stuff in the blue box go after curb pickup? Here’s a rundown.