The Blue Box

Can recycling save our environment?

The Blue Box

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:

  • A fleet of fossil fuel-burning trucks transports the materials from your curb to the recycling facility.
  • Those materials must then be processed before they can be recycled:
    • Labels burned off cans
    • Ink washed out of paper
    • Contaminants removed
    • Massive furnaces fired up to burn and melt
    • More energy-burning machines run to crush, shred, and cut
  • After all that, the recycled materials are finally shipped off elsewhere to be used as raw materials in manufacturing (see sidebar for more details).

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.

Reduce

There are many simple ways to put that first R into action and cut back on waste:

  • Buy products with little or no packaging, or spend money on good quality items that will last a long time.
  • Stay away from the mall.
  • Live a simple, uncluttered life; it will benefit your mental well-being as well as the environment.
  • Reconnect with the earth and grow your own food in your backyard or community garden.

Reuse

There are also many practical ways to reuse products:

  • Buy second-hand goods, or sell your own.
  • Use glass jars for food storage and plastic containers to store nonedible items.
  • On your next grocery shopping trip, take your plastic bags back to the store and use them again.
  • The list is endless–check out the Internet for more ideas. Leave recycling as a last resort.

The Recycling Process

Where does all that stuff in the blue box go after curb pickup? Here’s a rundown.

Paper

  1. After sorting, inks are removed with a chemical wash in a large vat.
  2. De-inked paper is pulped and pushed through screens to remove contaminants.
  3. Pulp may be bleached with hydrogen peroxide, chlorine dioxide, or oxygen.
  4. The pulp is mixed with new wood fibre and sprayed onto a wire screen.
  5. The resulting sheet is then dried, trimmed, rolled, and shipped out.

Plastic

  1. At a sorting facility, unusable plastics and contaminants are removed.
  2. The plastics are then washed and chopped into flakes.
  3. Flakes are dried and then melted in a furnace.
  4. Molten plastic is forced through a fine screen to remove contaminants.
  5. The plastic is squeezed into long strands, cooled, chopped, and sold.

Aluminum Cans

  1. Cans are sorted with giant magnets that remove ferrous metals.
  2. Sorted cans are condensed into briquettes and shipped to aluminum companies.
  3. Condensed cans are shredded, crushed, and burned (to remove labels).
  4. The resulting chips are melted down and mixed with virgin aluminum.
  5. Molten aluminum is poured into heavy blocks, rolled into sheets, and shipped.

Glass

  1. At a sorting facility, coloured and clear glasses are separated.
  2. Large contaminants are removed by hand, and then the glass is crushed.
  3. Magnets, screens, and vacuums remove smaller contaminants.
  4. Crushed glass is mixed with raw materials and melted in a furnace.
  5. Molten glass is poured into bottle or jar moulds, cooled, and shipped.

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