Sorting Through the Trash Talk About Recycling

Going green — By Stephanie on March 28, 2010 at 5:50 am
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Sorting out the recycling myths (image from orphanjones on Flickr)

I will be honest.  I wasn’t always a “green” person.  In fact, growing up, I was raised to believe that it was our God-given, American right to be a consumer in every sense of the word – from purchase, enjoyment to disposal.  Everything was put into the trash can or burned in the fireplace.

Fortunately, things have changed from the early 1970s to the present date.  It just feels wrong to toss things into the trash when I can avoid it.  However, those in the previous generation in my family have tossed a few arguments my way against a green lifestyle.  These myths may just be a factor in why some people don’t recycle!

The lawyer that I am just LOVES a good argument.  So bring it on!  Let’s sort through the trash talk about recycling!  Perhaps then the question of “why recycle” can be more easily answered.

The number one myth to dispel:  Recycling takes more energy than creating “new stuff.”

This one really gets me going, and its a recycling myth that I’ve heard for years.  In fact, our consumption habits leave either trash or recyclables – both of which need to be picked up.  So, you are at about equal there.  Yet, with recycling, you’ll need to use trucks less frequently and some of the new models can pick up both garbage and recycling, cutting down on fleets.

Perhaps even more impressive is this information from a recent article:

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.

A study by Morris found that it takes 10.4 million Btu to manufacture products from a ton of recyclables, compared to 23.3 million Btu for virgin materials. In contrast, the total energy for collecting, hauling and processing a ton of recyclables adds up to just 0.9 million Btu.

Let’s toss that myth in the garbage.  Untrue and misleading!

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Reasons to recycle! (image from D'Arcy Norman on Flickr)

The next recycling myth that needs to be addressed is the one about exorbitant labor costs for sorting recycled materials.

While partially true when municipal recycling first started emerging in the 1980s, these days it is much easier and cheaper to recycle… and it takes less human power.  Sure, you may still have to sort out your glass from mixed recyclables, and maybe even take your aluminum cans and plastic grocery bags in separately, but today, you can pretty much toss most things to be recycled in a single bin.

Today, most municipal programs use so-called“single-stream” recycling, which means that you can put in your milk jugs with your newspapers and your tin cans with plastic bottles.  You’ll still need to review individual rules and regulations to make sure that your recycling facilities can handle the types of items you include in the bin.

While some employees are still needed to pick out certain pieces of material that cannot be recycled, the new facilities these days use magnets to attract steel, as well as currents to deflect aluminum, and infrared spectrometers to identify different types of plastics.  Overall, the costs of operating these plants are also lower than before because only one bin needs to be collected, rather than multiple bins previously sorted by homeowners.  The other benefit is that it increases the recycling rate when customers don’t have to do the heavy lifting at the outset.

I’d say its a mark in the column for recycling, once again!

Finally, let’s examine the recycling myth that plastic ends up in the garbage anyway, so why recycle?

Again, that used to be more true in the past, but sorting plastics is getting better already, and much less of the material ends up in the landfill. First of all, many more mixed recyclable pick-ups accept plastic bottles, plastic tubs and other plastic-y consumer products.  Even more exciting is the fact that some municipalities, like San Francisco, are working to update their recycling programs to accept a broader range of materials, from clamshell containers to plastic toys.  Before you know it, you’ll be able to toss just about anything into the bin for recycling!

In case you are wondering how this is possible, big thanks to new technology:

Optical sorters use infrared light to instantly identify the chemical composition of a container, then a puff of air directs it into the right pile.

Overall, I’d say that we just need to get into the right mindset about recycling so that it becomes second-nature.

Instead of offering excuses not to recycle, how about finding reasons to do so?

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