Reduce, Reuse…Rethink?

According to a fact sheet published by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2011, the United States generated approximately 250 million tons of trash, and it subsequently composted and recycled nearly 87 million tons. This amounts to a recovery rate of roughly 34.7 percent, a considerable gain compared to the 10 percent recovery rate in 1980.

At face value, these numbers sound promising. Production processes release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but recycling prevents such a release. A 2011 EPA analysis found that 87 million tons of recycled or composted material offset the emissions of roughly 34 million passenger vehicles. It might be unwise, however, to accept this data as purely beneficial. Recycling is production, and as such, is plagued by environmental and economic consequences. Reduction and reuse, however, are more environmentally conscious because they do not require the reprocessing of material.

Let’s look at the relationship between recycling and net energy reductions. Producing recycled aluminum can utilize 5 percent of the energy needed to manufacture the initial can. The story is similar for recycled glass and paper, which utilize 30 and 40 percent of the energy needed for production, respectively.

Recycled plastic requires 70 percent less energy, although its path towards becoming a usable recycled material is more complex. Since there are “as many types of plastics as there are uses,” and each type must be recycled separately, plants must rigorously sort the material to prevent contamination. Otherwise, the manufacturer faces decreases in the efficacy and volume of the product, and, as a result, the labor required to convert recycled plastic into a usable material is alarmingly cost-prohibitive. Additionally, the emission reductions calculated by the EPA — though impressive at first glance — are not optimal, as much of what goes into the recycling bin makes its way into the landfill anyway.

Net energy reductions are an important consideration, but so are the costs associated with recycling. Furthermore, these costs are not borne only by the companies who process recycled materials, but also municipal governments. These governments must consider the demand necessitated by companies that use the material, and the emission of non-CO2 greenhouse gases. Should manufacturers sacrifice the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions if first-time production costs considerably less? How do we deal with fluctuations in demand? What should we do when a recycling facility is a significant cause of pollution? Together, these challenges make recycling almost hopelessly complex.

Amidst this complicated debate, a reexamination of what it means to “reduce, reuse, and recycle” may offer some helpful advice. Originally coined by environmental movements of the twentieth century to abbreviate a waste hierarchy, the phrase suggests recycling as a viable option for our waste, but only as a last resort to the less environmentally impacting actions of reduction or reuse. When we reduce, we remove some of the waste and energy necessitated by our production, and when we reuse we eliminate some of the need for further production and energy use. We acknowledge that we are a population of 7 billion and growing, and begin to replace “Is this recyclable?” with “Do I really need this?” We infuse sense with sustainability, and become just a bit more active in lessening our personal environmental footprints.

Image credit: Marcus Quigmire, via Wikimedia Commons

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