It All Comes Down To Dollars and ¢
Recycling is referred to as the process where waste materials are converted into new products that can then be redistributed for the same or similar purpose. Through the process of recycling, the aim is to prevent the waste of potentially useful materials, reduce the consumption of raw materials, reduce energy usage, and eliminate conventional waste disposal methods that yield high greenhouse gas emissions. One of the biggest debates pertains to recycling, particularly plastic, as some believe that it saves the environment while others say it fails basic economic principles.
History of Recycling and Plastic
The history of recycling began at 400 BC to the time of Plato. Recycling primarily began out of a rise for precious materials, which at times were metals or ore. Industrialization began the demand for affordable materials, ranging from rags to scrap metals. These goods would be reused and purchased by major industries like Carnegie steel for his railroad development and Ford for the growing automobile industry. Because of recycling, railroads dominated the United States in all directions, and highways were being driven by reused metals for Ford vehicles. In terms of the world’s most used item, plastic, it is believed to have been developed around 1860 when Phelan and Collander offered a $10,000 cash prize to anyone who could design the best substitute for natural ivory. John Wesley Hyatt developed a cellulose derivative for the content and later after being patented, was used commercially for dental plates to men’s collars. Shortly after, other plastics were being introduced into circulation which led to the development of synthetic plastic from Leo Hendrik Baekeland. But the major breakthrough occurred in 1920 under the German chemist Hermann Staudinger, who introduced element combinations in plastic to create greater strength and durability. His breakthrough paved the way for the introduction of nylon, methyl methacrylate, also known as Lucite or Plexiglas, and polytetrafluoroethylene, which was marketed as Teflon in 1950.
Modern Day Recycling Methods
Today, there are two methods of recycling used. The first form is Single Stream Recycling, also known as fully commingled and single sort. This method refers to a system where all the recyclable materials are mixed together into one truck and are handled together in the recycling process. Multi-Stream Recycling, on the other hand, is quite the opposite. When the recyclable materials are gathered together, they are sorted by the depositor into the separate commodities (i.e. glass, paper, plastic) before being placed onto the truck. These materials are then handled separately during the recycling process. Single Stream Recycling takes collection and processing as one event whereas Multi-Stream Recycling separates collection and process into two separate events.
Now that we are aware of the types of recycling, the next thought would be what can be recycled? Recyclable materials consists of glass, paper, metal, plastic, electronics, and textiles. In order to get these materials recycled, they are either brought to a recycling collection center or picked up from the curbside by trucks. These materials are then sorted, cleaned, and reprocessed into reusable materials destined for manufacturing.
To receive a much more detailed and visual representation of the information above and to understand the different types of recycling for different materials, please take a look at the video below.
Recyclers and Anti-Recyclers: The Never Ending Debate?
When it comes to recycling, there’s two main perspectives: the people who support recycling, referred to as recyclers, and the people who see no purpose in it at all, who are known as anti-recyclers. As discussed prior, one of the largest debates in recycling is plastic. Pro-plastic recyclers argue that recycling will conserve raw materials, save energy, and remove harm that the landfills cause. On the other hand, anti-recyclers believe that more energy is ultimately being used for the process of recycling than the energy that can be used to create new products from the start, and that our landfill area is more than enough to support our waste. Personally, after the data I have concluded, I believe that the anti-recyclers present less data, but information that is more alarming and demands attention.
From an economic perspective, pro-plastic supporters argue that recycling has created its own industry, employing jobs, and stimulating the economy. In terms of plastic, the figure above shows that it creates some of the highest recycling jobs per year in the country per 10,000 tons per year (93), showing that recycling does provide some economic benefit.
Now to put this number into perspective, let’s look at the amount of jobs created. The diagram below represents the facility type and its current and potential outputs of certain recycled products. When looking at the current throughput of plastic, including reclaimers along with shredding and grinding, it is 398,000. We can actually determine the amount of jobs in California incorporating both of the charts above.
Now, let’s do some math to show the global job effect of recycling plastic:
93 Jobs x 398,000Tons Per Year = 2,790 Jobs
10,000 Tons Per Year 10,000 Tons Conversion
Although 2,790 jobs does not seem like a large amount, take into account that this focuses only on one state. If we look at the entire nation, by multiplying it by 50 states, we would find out that recycling employs approximately 139,500 jobs per year on average, clearly showing from an economic perspective that recycling does stimulate the economy in more ways than just one. It provides the United States with a bustling industry that helps enable economic stability.
Another argument that pro-plastic recycling focus on is the idea that recycling reduces landfill and water table pollution. As shown by the diagram below, plastic can sit in landfills for anywhere between 1,000 and 100,000 years. Because this product can sit in this area for such a large period of time, it economically is taking away the opportunity for other building projects to be produced there. Furthermore, the bottles in the landfills not only take up such a large amount of space, but it can lead to water table pollution.
Plastic and other landfill items can leak a large amount of toxins into the water table that lies beneath the landfills, which could ultimately end up in homes as drinking water. Since landfills usually are near large bodies of water, it could also threaten animal habitat life. For instance, TCE is one of the products that results from the biodegradation of plastic, and the article shockingly says that, “It would take less than 4 drops of TCE mixed with the water in an average swimming pool (20,000 gallons) to render the water undrinkable. Some surveys conducted have shown that 82% of the landfills have leaks and up to 41% of the landfills had a leak area of more than one square foot.” It is clear that there is a problem of throwing items such as plastic into landfills, and it should be less harmful to recycle the products by themselves. This also shows that there is a clear environmental problem if we do not recycle.
As seen in the data table below, the number of landfills has dramatically decreased because we are running out of space. Landfills seem to no longer be the solution, as recycling seems to be a current viable option.
Now that we looked at the harmful effects of landfills and the minimal of space we have left, let’s look at how recycling seems to solve that issue. Below I created a chart to show how each individual recycled item saved energy:
|Landfill Space Saved||30 cubic yards||2 cubic yards||4 cubic yards|
As you can see, it is clear environmentally that recycling products can save tremendous amounts of space and energy for certain recyclable products.
Although recycling plastic seems to be something important , the anti-recycling arguments seems to be of greater importance. One of the primary arguments from this perspective is the idea that it costs less money to manufacture a new plastic product rather than recycling the plastic product. To provide some quantitative perspective, look at the chart below:
The cost to make a plastic bottle in the United States, according to the picture above, is 2.1 cents. This includes how much energy (Ethane, electricity, fuel) is being put into it and the labor costs. In order to recycle, we can calculate the costs by looking at how much it costs per ton to recycle and how many tons are being recycled of plastic. When comparing to the material of polyethylene terephthalate, a plastic bottle for soft drinks, it costs about $360-$480 per ton. If you divide by a ton, you get approximately the weight of 1 water bottle, which is about 1 lb. By diving $360/2000, we get $.18 per bottle to manufacture a water bottle from the recycling process.
When comparing the $.18 per bottle of recycling to the $.021 it costs to manufacture a new water bottle, there seems to be no point. It is almost 10 times as worse to manufacture a water bottle from the recycling process as it costs to manufacture 1 water bottle from scratch. And at the cost of manufacturing on the higher end, meaning $480 per ton, it costs $.24 per bottle to manufacture from the recycling process, producing an even worse result of over 11 times the loss as opposed to originally manufacturing the water bottle.
From an environmental perspective, anti-recyclers claim that recycling emits more CO2 than dumping the products into a landfill. Curbside recycling is the most popular form of recycling, and as a result, trucks are always out on the streets collecting material and producing extra pollution and waste. It is no wonder that the United States has already seen a decline in curbside recycling programs, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In fact, approximately 8,660 curbside recycling programs exist nationwide, down from 8,875 in 2002. What ends up happening is that whatever environmental benefit recycling could’ve provided by saving energy and reducing waste is surpassed by the pollution and waste yielded by the trucks and processing plants.
What is even more surprising is the amount of toxic waste recycling facilities produce. The EPA has reported that “recycling 100 tons of old newsprint generates 40 tons of toxic waste” and 13 of the 50 worst Superfund Sites (hazardous waste sites) are currently or were at one point recycling facilities. Recycling plastics creates a waste stream that includes contaminated wastewater and air emissions. As stated above, many toxic additives are used in processing and manufacturing plastics such as colorants, flame retardants, lubricants, and ultraviolet stabilizers. Recycling facilities that do not properly manage these chemicals cannot only cause health problems for humans, but chemicals that get mixed with rainwater can also damage nearby biomes and percolate into groundwater. In addition, when the plastic cannot get properly sorted according to their resin codes, it can deem very large loads unrecyclable due to contamination.
According to the EPA, municipal solid waste landfills cause only one additional cancer risk every 13 years. Today, modern landfills must also be lined with clay and plastic, equipped with drainage and gas-collection systems, covered daily with soil and monitored every day for underground leaks. With heightened safety standards for landfills, they have become a more reliable method of waste management in the United States. Landfill safety has significantly increased over the years and has been implemented in ways where it is less detrimental to the environment and to humans. Not only this, landfill costs, according to location of course, are typically so much more feasible for city municipalities.
Although criticisms exist that there is not enough landfill area for America’s waste, it is not true. In fact, holding all of America’s garbage for the next one hundred years would require a space only 255 feet high or deep and 10 miles on a side. The carbon dioxide released in the landfill process is not considered harmful or as a major contribution to global warming as it is equivalent to the carbon dioxide released by natural decomposition. With curbside recycling, however, this is not the case. It is significantly more impactful with curbside recycling because trucks emit carbon dioxide in huge quantities that significantly destroys the ozone layer. ~40% of our waste ends up in landfills anyway and when compared to recycling plastics considering its complexities and costs, landfills are easily an easier and more cost efficient option.
This article states the costs in certain cities, comparing and contrasting recycling with anti-recycling, and providing numerous examples from large cities how recycling is flawed. Specifically the text says, “In California, for example, a ton to recycle costs $147 compared to $28 a ton to landfill waste. Not only is it much more expensive per ton, the overall profits are diminished with the high costs to upkeep recycling.” The article also focuses on other cities. For instance, in Atlantic County, New Jersey, selling recyclable goods brings in $2.45 million but costs over $3 million resulting in a significant monetary loss. In New York City, for every ton of recycled goods that a truck delivers to a recycling facility, the city spends $200 more than it would spend to dispose of that waste into a landfill. Glass, metal and plastic recycling costs New York $240 per ton, almost double what it costs to just throw it away. As you can see, this source seems to clearly bash recycling by its overuse of energy and monetary input.
Looking at the arguments of the Recyclers and the Anti-Recyclers, it seems clear that there are certain economic and environmental benefits for recycling plastic and not recycling plastic. In the long run, it is much more feasible to not recycle plastics for its complexities in material composition and costs of sorting and processing. Rather, putting waste into a landfill costs much less and is also much less hurtful to the environment since it yields less carbon dioxide emissions. In addition, putting waste into the landfill does not acquire as much space and energy recycling facilities do and as such, waste management can be headed with landfill disposal.
While recycling and disposing of waste into landfills continue to be the most utilized methods of waste management in the United States, source reduction and reusing materials have proven to be more sustainable and economical. Over the past five decades the amount of waste each person has created has almost doubled from 2.7 to 4.5 pounds per day. The EPA’s Office of Solid Waste estimates that Americans produce 4.5 pounds of waste per day, which adds up to more than 1,600 pounds a year (EPA). The way to go about reducing your plastic usage is enabling yourself to buy reusable plastic materials and using that for several different purposes. This will in effect also decrease the amount of waste you produce, and on top of that, many business within America provide discounts for using your own bag. This shows how reusing certain items is useful, and it can lead to the reduction of dollars and ¢.