The Cost of RecyclingAugust 26th, 2009 by Ashley Strickland
We’re facing a global controversy that shakes the very idea of being green down to its core by questioning one very simple practice: does recycling work? We’ve been taught to recycle since we were children, but what are the effects: positive, negative or even neutral? A few years ago, New York City suspended the recycling of some materials because it was more expensive than using new materials. Does recycling make economic sense and does it save energy over new material production? And what is to become of our recycled paper, aluminum and glass? SocialYell started asking and consumers started responding. The results: Recycling works, but only as well as we make it work.
Waste Not, Want Not
Recycling itself is a creative way of dealing with our own waste as human beings, but some are taking this creativity to new levels of sustainability. Greg Benson, CEO of Loll Designs, has turned recycling into a business. His company makes outdoor furniture from recycled milk jugs! He knows firsthand the impact of recycling plastic, but believes that we need to eliminate using plastic entirely.
“It seems what needs to happen is more people need to NOT use containers and materials that cannot be recycled or reused,” Benson said. “The entire system for collecting recyclables is really an end of pipe solution and it is not very efficient. The responsibility needs to start with the manufacturers who create the packaging and products first, but the consumer needs to voice their desire for a change.”
Other companies similar to Benson’s also give up nicer materials in favor of biodegradeable or 100 percent recycled material just because it helps the environment. Tina Hill, the owner of Kidzsack, sells eco-friendly backpacks for kids that are made from 100 percent recycled cotton and plastic bottles. She purchases this unique fabric from a company called Ecotecyarn, and while this material is more expensive than canvas, Hill believes that our world is becoming greener by the day and that the idea behind recycled fabric far outweighs the price.
“I love the idea of using recycled fabric and doing my part to make a difference,” said Hill. “How cool is it that kids can learn something from the craft/activity that they are using!”
And what about companies that use recycling as the basis for their products? “Recycling is necessary and I believe it will open more industry as well,” Hill said.
The biggest problem with recycling is accessibility. Some towns just aren’t close to recycling facilities. Recycling actually requires us as consumers to be more active in the ways we dispose of our containers. But others are even questioning the safety of recycling some products.
Ron Hayes of Pacific Steel and Recycling in Montana said it best: “If it puts more pollutants into the air and/or uses more energy to process and ship the material to a mill that makes new material, then we should re-evaluate whether it makes sense to recycle it.”
Others believe that recycling may not make the most of our energy efficiency at this stage. Pablo Solomon, a noted conservationist, believes that if we can find a way to cleanse smoke stacks in the first place, burning our recycled products could provide a nice energy source.
“The real weak spot in technology is smoke stack cleaning,” Solomon said. “We could burn our trash at high temperatures to generate cheap electricity and end the need for landfills–actually we can do it now. It works very well. The problem is the polluting smoke. There is technology being developed to cleanse the smoke released from burning coal that is very promising.”
Technology is definitely a factor that needs improving when it comes to recycling, but what else comes in to play concerning this green practice? In the world of paper recycling, Verne Wheelwright, Ph.D. of the Personal Futures Network, identifies these factors as major players: transportation and fuel costs, supplier payments, politics, cheating (shipping trash or wet paper) and markets and market cycles. But when it comes to all recycling, economy is the main factor across the board.
The Greenbacks in Going Green
Have you ever considered the true value of your recyclables? Aluminum ranks at the top, while glass grazes at the bottom and paper and certain types of plastic float around in the middle. Moving all of these around costs money, “but there is so much more than just what an item is worth on the open market,” Derrick Mains, president of Green Nurture, said.
So, should we recycle?
“As for energy, in some instances it is easier and cheaper to just go get new stuff, but again resources are finite – some day we will not be able to get that new stuff, so reusing and recycling today is better for the future,” Mains said.
“Some countries (like Mexico) have even gone as far as to start to mine their landfills, digging them up and sorting them looking for metals and plastics that can be recycled. This is a great step in the right direction. We can’t just keep using and expect those resources to always be there. We need to start closing the loop and using items over and over again. Today it might cost us a bit more than we like – but the true payout is in the future.”
People who are recycling know this to be true. They see the results every day. But common recycling has taken as big of a hit as the economy, although it is recovering. Does this encourage others to recycle as well? “Absolutely!” Lillian Brummet, “Trash Talk” columnist, author and radio host, said. “In fact recycling has swooped the North American continent and been embraced like no other sport or past time. While it is true that not all ‘recyclable’ items are included in every region’s programs, the rate of recycling is increasing and technology and efficiency are continually improving with a goal to enable the industry to match the demand for these valuable resources. Enough energy is saved by recycling one single tin can to power a television for three hours!”
Becoming Aware of Our Actions
What seems to be increasing evermore is simple awareness, which brings about these innovations in the recycling industry. SocialYell put out a discussion on the dangerous effects of Styrofoam at the beginning of the summer and now “a number of communities are banning Styrofoam in the next 18 months,” according to Michael Saltzman in California. “20 cities in California, Seattle and Portland” are the first on a growing list to get rid of one of our most lethal containers. Richard Feldman, of G4 Packaging, is ready for the shift, supplying food packaging that is made from sugar cane and has no impact on the environment.
We may not be diving into our landfills to pull out recyclable materials like in Mexico, but recycling could save you some money in the future. Brigitte Casemyr, a member of her Westborough, Mass. Advisory Finance Committee, shared this fact about just how much cash you can save: “The Town saves approximately $108.00 for every ton of trash that is recycled. Increasing the recycling rate has a direct savings effect on the trash disposal budget. (Last year the Town saved over $70,000 by recycling).”
To recycle or not to recycle is your own personal choice, but in the end, I believe it has the greatest benefit that we can give back to our Earth. Reusing our materials rather than taking up space with our trash will ultimately help us in taking care of our one home.
Ashley Strickland is a senior majoring in journalism at the University of Georgia. She is one of many recycle-happy college students at UGA.