Is Recycling Actually Bad For the Environment?

Of the estimated 112 million households in the United States, one of the most common domestic practices is recycling. Schools, public service announcements, and pop culture mediums implore citizens to help the environment by sorting their paper, plastic and aluminum. And, amazingly, most people listen. American citizens have had recycling so imprinted on their psyche that failure to comply with this societal more causes an accumulation of guilt on their "green conscience."

The theory that recycling may not be as good for our economy and environment as we had thought, therefore, is utterly shocking. More than shocking, this recent surge in discrediting the merits of recycling, notably popularized in Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, is unthinkable. Wondering if I had been wasting my time with recycling, I immersed myself into recent recycling data.

First, it is imperative to note that not all recycled materials are actually recycled. This theory is re-enforced by statistics indicating only 6.8% of all plastics are actually recycled, when 77% of Americans are thought to recycle.

To be properly recycled, recyclables must be appropriately sorted by consumers, and properly collected. During sorting, the recyclables are checked for food and other contaminants, which could potentially cause the item to go straight to waste disposal. Recycling is a commodity business with supply and demand. Therefore, an industry desire must exist for the recyclable material to be recycled. Furthermore, if there are not enough of the same items to recycle, or a local recycling facility does not have the capability to reprocess the material, then the item is disposed of in landfills. The all-American act of recycling, thus, begins to look a little more complex.

One of the seemingly inherent facts about recycling paper, plastic, or aluminum is that reprocessing results in financial savings. While aluminum recycling can readily be traced to savings, paper and plastic recycling does not necessarily save the country money. It is estimated that the cost to fill a landfill with a ton is $50-$60, while to recycle a ton of materials costs closer to $150 or more. Advocates of recycling might argue that the recycling industry, a government subsidy funded with tax dollars, creates jobs, which stimulate economic activity. This tax subsidy, however, results in a net loss of approximately $8 billion a year. In other words, these jobs are not only failing to create revenue, these jobs are losing hard earned incomes our hard earned revenues. Recycling doesn't seem quite as romantic when the only people making money are the companies that utilize the repurposed materials. Where is our payback? Average Americans are the individuals responsible for the majority of the national recycling effort, and yet, we don’t see any of the benefits.

Moreover, recycling is considered a proactive measure to help secure the welfare of the environment. Overwhelming quantities of facts and figures, however, dispute this assumption. It is theorized that recycling actually causes more carbon emissions than it actually saves. For just one example, curbside recycling requires more trucks for collecting the same amount of waste. In most communities, this requires, on average, twice the amount of waste disposal vehicles. Therefore, recycling requires more iron ore and coal mining, steel and rubber manufacturing, and petroleum extractions for refined fuel. Ultimately, the consequence is more air pollution.

So does this mean Americans should just stop recycling? Should we give up on a pastime as popular in the household as watching baseball games and playing monopoly? While these facts are estimates and approximations, it is certainly an alarming inundation of theories. Nonetheless, recycling some products very clearly has positive impacts on the environment; electronic and aluminum recycling undoubtedly prevent environmental degradation. By enforcing habitual recycling, the more important recycling practices are encouraged. Furthermore, at the very least, recycling increases morale. It is scientifically proven that recycling improves self-esteem. Therefore, environmental and economic costs aside, perhaps we should just keep on sorting our plastics, paper, and aluminum for the welfare of our citizens.