Debunking the Recycling Myths
Popular Mechanics has just published an excellent piece by Alex Hutchinson called "Recycling Myths: PM Debunks 5 Half Truths about Recycling." Even those of us who consider ourselves Recycling Jedis will learn a thing or two from this great feature!
Myth Number 1: We have to recycle because we're running out of landfill space.
That was the rallying cry for recycling advocates back in the 1980s, when the Mobro 4000 garbage barge wandered up and down the East Coast searching for a place to dump its moldering load. It's a bit of a red herring, though. After all, we have pretty much unlimited space to dump garbage-if we're willing. In practice, for every town that refuses permission to build a landfill, there's often another town eager for the revenues that a landfill site can bring.
According to the National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA), the United States has about 20 years of disposal capacity left in existing landfills. There are, however, places where space is getting tight…. read the rest about this myth.
Myth Number 2: The trucks that collect recycling burn more energy and produce more pollution than recycling saves.
Collecting recyclables isn't cheap-it eats up about 50 to 60 percent of the budget of a typical curbside recycling program, according to Lori Scozzafava of the Solid Waste Association of North America. And the trucks burn gas and emit pollution as they go. That said, "You're going to collect waste one way or another," points out Jeff Morris, a Washington-based environmental consultant. A recycling program should allow garbage collection to become less frequent (or to use fewer trucks), offsetting the cost and energy involved. Plus, new truck designs can collect both recycling and garbage (at different times), avoiding the huge capital expense of an extra fleet. They can also self-dump specially designed bins, saving time and manpower.
But all that turns out to be pretty much irrelevant to the question of whether recycling makes environmental sense. Scientists have conducted hundreds of "life-cycle analyses" to compare recycling with other options like landfill and incineration, following the entire chain of events from the manufacture of a product (using either virgin or recycled materials) to its disposal. The dominant factor in virtually every case is the enormous amount of energy required to turn raw materials into metals and plastics compared to the energy needed to reprocess products that already exist. Read the rest.
Myth Number 3: Thanks to the sky-high prices of raw materials, cities are getting rich by selling recyclables.
In the past year, prices for almost every kind of recyclable have hit record highs, sparking a frenzy of activity in the recycling industry. "If you're wondering where all the used-car salesmen have gone, they're rushing into recycling," says Jerry Powell, an industry veteran who edits Resource Recycling magazine. That translates to profits for many players-in fact, Powell says, "if you can't make money in recycling right now, you should get out of the business."
Unfortunately, that doesn't necessarily mean that your local city council is getting a cut of the action. "Some cities are still locked in unfavorable long-term contracts and paying tipping fees," says Ed Skernolis of the National Recycling Council. That means that these cities have to pay to collect and sort their curbside recycling-and then pay someone to take away these now-valuable materials instead of being paid for them. Read the rest.
Myth Number 4: All the paper, plastic, metal and glass dumped in recycling bins has to be painstakingly (and expensively) sorted by hand.
When municipal recycling was first catching on in the 1980s, it wasn't clear how carefully people would sort their recyclables. "Some towns used to have a dozen different boxes for different types of bottles, cans and so on," recalls Richard Porter, a University of Michigan economics professor who authored The Economics of Waste. Not everyone was eager to devote that much effort to sorting up front-but it was either that or pay people to do it by hand at the end of the line, which was prohibitively expensive.
These days, processors are beginning to move toward "single-stream" material recovery facilities, which allow homeowners to dump all their recycling in one bin and rely on machines to do the dirty work. According to Eileen Berenyi, a consultant who studies solid waste management, the number of single-stream facilities in the U.S. jumped from 70 in 2001 to 160 in 2007. Read the rest.
Myth Number 5: Most of the plastic put in recycling bins ends up in the garbage.
This one is true now, but changing quickly. Sorting plastics is tricky for recycling processors. Bottles can't be separated out with a magnet; small pieces like coffee-cup lids get flattened and mixed into paper bales; bags get caught in the spinning disks of sorting equipment, forcing frequent shut-downs. Trying to decode the recycling numbers on plastic products is also a pain for consumers. Read the rest.
Are you certain you're recycling as much as you can at home? Get the Low Down! Click here to learn How to Recycle to the Max in Your City. And if you need to recycle dangerous, toxic or large items, be sure to check our nationwide directory of local recycling centers.
Source: Low Impact Living