The Biggest Misconception in American History

Recycling, most renownly recognized by the 3 R’s of reduced, reuse, recycle, is a process of converting waste materials into new, usable products. Not only do we think about recycling as a beneficiary by its removing waste products from landfills, but it has shown signs of reducing air pollution and water pollution. Although recycling may be considered a crucial element to society, critics have recently shown that recycling is economically flawed and produces even greater levels of pollution than its original waste product.

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Figure 1 [14]

Reduce Reuse Recycling Diagram

Section I. History

Before we examine this controversy, lets focus on some background information of recycling. Recycling’s origin began around the year 400 with Plato, by following a very basic system [1]. The process focused on taking household materials such as ash, broken tools, and pottery, eventually being broken down into smaller components and converted into other products. As time evolved into the pre-industrial era, the methods by which people focused on recycling became more elaborate with greater participation. Greater technology yielded greater recycling, as the Japanese illustrated the art of repulped paper and selling the recycled product in 1031. Recycling also was used for home essentials, as the Britain’s used ash and coal as a basis to create bricks. On a more localized level, recycling was extremely important during times of war in the United States. During WWII, almost every sort of metal seemed to be melted down for artillery, as well as taking kitchen oils, fats, and other ingredients for artillery lubrication. Here are some early recycling advertisement photos during WWII:

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Figure 2                                                                                             Figure 3

Recycling During WWII for Scrap Metal                       Recycling During WWII Oils

                                                    and Fats for explosives

 

Section II. Modern Uses

Now that we have examined the history, lets look at the modern uses and process before we focus on the controversies. Recycling occurs worldwide, reusing materials such as glass, paper, metal, plastic, textiles, and electronics. These materials can be recycled via a collection center, or curbside, where facilities further sort, clean, and reprocess the materials into something new and reusable. Curbside collection focuses on homeowners putting recycled materials into designated containers, which will then be picked up by a waste collection vehicle. Depending on the facility, the material is then sorted in a variety of ways depending on the technology, and then the materials are negotiated to buy-back centers which turn the processed material into a new recycled material. If you would like to see a more in depth video about curbside collection recycling, click here. The other type of recycling, known as drop-off centers, focuses on the waste producer to transport the recycled materials to a central location to be processed. Since this is more work for homeowners, it is less popular than curbside collection, which does not require any work from the homeowner. Below are images of the types of recycling:

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Figure 4                                                                             Figure 5

Collection Center In Missouri                              Curbside Collection In Vermont

 

Section III. Is Recycling Economically Flawed?

When it comes to any side of the argument, there are two basic sides: Side of For & Side of Against. In this case, there are pro-recycling and anti-recycling. When it comes to the perspective of the pro-recycling, they focus on the mindset that it takes the items out of the dump, therefore helping the environment. However, on the minority side, the anti-recycling group claims that recycling is economically flawed and produces more of a cost then a benefit. Due to this controversy, let’s focus on some quantitative data to determine which side is correct.

A. Pro Recycling

The perspective of pro-recycling focuses primarily on the issue of major involvement and recycling’s ability to keep the waste product out of landfills. Figure 5 below focuses on the percentages in million tons of recycling products between the years of 1960 and 2012. As you can see, the data is pretty clear that there is a major involvement in terms of people’s willingness to recycle, as the percentage of total recycling grew from 5.6% to 86.6% over the past 52 years.

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Figure 6 [9]

EPA released recycling rates over 50 years

  Another piece of data that seems to clarify this claim is from Clark University. It was published in the 1990’s as an article showing the percentage of recycling by country. Here is an image from this article:

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Figure 7 [10]

Clark University World Recycling Percentage

As you can see from figure 7, every country seems to have some sort of involvement into recycling. Keep in mind that this source is from the 1990’s, and as we saw figure 6, recycling has increased dramatically. Because of this, we can viably make the conclusion that these countries color’s presently would be more yellow-greenish color, presenting the idea that nations as a whole are recycling more than 27% of their products.

Another argument that the pro-recycling group focuses on is keeping the waste product out of landfills. Let’s examine this by looking at the electronic waste diagram below:

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Figure 8 [11]

Electronicstakeback released source of Recycling Electronics

                  When examining figure 8, which focuses on the amount of generated electronic waste over the last decade, it is clear that we have generated a much greater amount of electronic waste. However, what is clear from this data is that there has been a gradual decrease from the years 2010 to 2013 in terms of e-waste trashed even when the total e-waste increases and plateaus, showing that we are keeping more of these products out of landfills. Once again, similar to figure 6, we can see that from the last piece of data in this diagram that we are further differentiating the amount of products being recycled, as well as the rate at which the products are being recycled (going from 10% to 40.4%).

As we can see from these three pieces of data, the main arguments of the pro-side seems to be viable. Not only does it show that there is a greater involvement of people participating in recycling, but it also is resulting in a decrease of these items ending up in landfills

B. Anti Recycling

The side of Anti-recycling has only one major argument, the economics, particularly the idea that it takes more money to recycle the product than produce the real product. Because of this narrower argument, there are fewer sources to judge this argument. However, these fewer sources reveal crucial information that portray the idea that recycling could be the biggest misconception in American History.

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Figure 9 [12]

Department of Sanitation Refuse vs. Recycling

 

One of the key pieces of information comes from the Department of Sanitation in New York City, as shown above. This diagram is comparing and contrasting the economic costs of throwing the item away, referred to as refuse from this diagram, or recycle the product. When looking at the conclusion of the collection section, which takes into account the cost of transportation and paying workers, it costs 186% more to recycle products than to refuse the products completely. Although it may cost more in total, you must take into account the fact that there was almost four times as much refused product as there was recycled product.

Discovery Magazine provides a similar thought about recycling’s flaws. “Recycling is generally far better than sending waste to landfills and relying on new raw materials to drive the consumer economy. It takes two-thirds less energy to make products from recycled plastic than from virgin plastic. By the last official measure in 2005, Americans recycle an estimated 32 percent of their total waste, which averages nearly a ton per person per year, around a third of which is plastic. Our recycling efforts save the greenhouse gas equivalent of removing 39.6 million cars from the road [3].” When looking at this article solely in terms of energy, one would simply realize that to throw away a product requires less energy than to run it through conveyer belt and recycle it to its proper location, only to use more energy to either heat it and or clean it to create a new product.

When looking at the energy costs of recycling, the video below seems to provide some alarming facts.

Figure 10

Energy Costs Of Recycling

 

Let’s focus on some of the main points of the documentary. The first point would be looking at if recycling saves energy. According to the video, it is clear that recycling is flawed, as it says, “Does recycling save energy? No, because it increases energy use in transport, sorting, storing, and cleaning.” By creating more steps of transport, we are creating more air pollution. Similarly, by using more materials such as water to clean the recycled materials, we are creating more water pollution. On another note, the video also raises questions about the monetary costs between dumping and going through the recycling process. One researcher from this film concluded that, “It costs about $50 to $60 dollars a ton to take the trash to the landfill, whereas it costs between $150 to $160 to recycle the materials.” Does that sound worth it?

As we can see from the documentary, one may be skeptical to recycle, so let’s look into the potential side effects if one recycles to further prove this side of the recycling argument. Alexander Volokh (photo below), a consumer research from Emory University, provides an explanation to why these items really are not recycled based on their potentials.

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Figure 11 [13]                                                                                                                                                                   Figure 12

Alexander Volokh, Emory University Researcher                                                                                      Andrew Volokh Research On Potentials of Recycling

When looking at figure 12, keep in mind that Volokh focuses on the theoretical potentials of recycling certain products. As you can see, it seems like the majority of items that end up in landfills can be recycled, its just the costs and risks are an issue. As we can see from the chart, items such as glass, paper, and plastic have such high negative potentials with a much smaller upside. Why would somebody try to recycle glass at a $4 gain with a chance to lose more than 29 times that?

In terms of looking at costs and benefits, one valuable source would be people who actually are involved in the recycling process. Let’s look at a reasonably sized Waste Management Facility of Dunmore PA, which is a single stream system of recycling, meaning it sorts through and decides if the materials can be recycled or placed in landfills. One of the managers at the facility said, “Some materials such as glass are useless to recycle because creating new glass is cheaper than recycling it.” When looking at a Waste management facility, it is important to recognize that this establishment is used solely for the purpose of creating profit: by not only using workers from the penitentiary so they can pay the workers 20 to 30 cents an hour, but to only recycle and resell items that create profit. When items such as glass and certain plastics are refused rather than being recycled at a facility where its job it to recycle, it certainly raises questions about recycling’s validity.

Section IV: The Conclusion & Solution

Recycling seems to be the biggest misconception in American history. As we can see from multiple sources, many of the items that are in landfills can be recycled, it is just the fact that business do not want to recycle them because they will not generate greater profits for either the recycling plant or the company using the recycled materials to create new products. Instead, what can be done to turn this misconception into something beneficial is the idea that businesses should recycle all materials regardless of margins, and resell them to businesses. Businesses would slightly mark up the prices of the materials, or, it that is such a big concern, charge the same price and make slightly less margins. Although charging the same amount decreases profit, it more importantly decreases society’s material waste footprint in landfills across the world.

As we can see from a glance, recycling does have its issue, some much greater to the untrained eye. But now with this amount of information, the next question being asked is what can we do to fix this? One of the biggest issues seen as a college student is the background information we are taught about recycling. Essentially, students are told recycling is good, given no sources and or statistics. Instead, students should be given the information and determine if they think this process is good or bad. On another note, one should also look into how they can reduce their material waste footprint. According to earthday.org, they define ecological footprint as, “How much biologically productive land and sea is used by a given population or activity, and compares this to how much land and sea is available for human demands for food, fiber, timber, energy, and space for infrastructure” [5]. This may seem like a daunting task, but it can start with something small, such as bringing a reusable bag at the grocery store. In fact, ABC news points out the idea that by using a recyclable bag, some grocery stores give five to ten cents back for each used reused bag [6]. On a larger scale, companies or stores can look at rethinkrecycling’s website, which provides helpful suggestions to reduce one’s footprint such as composting food after a staff meeting, or go electric with mailing things as opposed to receiving physical copies of mail [7].

Like anything in society, business and processes have their positives and negatives. It is extremely important to note that recycling is not purely good or purely bad. Although the information provided above primarily sides with the idea recycling is bad, recycling does promote jobs and helped jumpstart the economy to a degree after the recession. However, it is important to not take anything said for granted or as fact, as the data above clearly shows that recycling is a more complex issue than first thought.

 

Citations:

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recycling

[2] http://www.usapropaganda.com/propaganda-world-war-ii-posters/world-war-ii-posters/006-large.jpg

[3] http://discovermagazine.com/2009/jul-aug/06-when-recycling-is-bad-for-the-environment

[4]http://volokh.com/sasha/consres.html?referer=https%3A%2F%2Fscholar.google.com%2Fscholar%3Fhl%3Den%26q%3Drecycling%2Bbad%26btnG%3D%26as_sdt%3D1%252C39%26as_sdtp%3D

[5] http://www.earthday.org/footprintfaq

[6] http://abcnews.go.com/Business/story?id=3609688&page=1

[7] http://www.rethinkrecycling.com/residents/reduce/top-10-ways-reduce-waste

[8] http://www.biomasspackaging.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/education-iStock_000007079127Large.jpg

[9] http://www.ibo.nyc.ny.us/iboreports/refuseandrecycle.pdf

[10] https://ds.lclark.edu/sge/wp-content/uploads/sites/121/2012/09/GISLab13.png

[11] http://www.electronicstakeback.com/wp-content/uploads/ewaste-bar-chart-5.1.jpg

[12] http://www.ibo.nyc.ny.us/iboreports/refuseandrecycle.pdf

[13] http://law.emory.edu/_includes/images/sections/faculty-and-scholarship/faculty-high-res/volokh-highres.jpg

[14]https://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/management/research/units/clms/images/copy2_of_copy_of_Recyclelogo.jpg/image_preview

 

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