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.

Cartoon of Emissions

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.

Plastic Bag Cartoon

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.

single-stream-recycling (2)
In Single Stream Recycling, the truck would take all of these materials in one load and carry it to the facility that way. The processing of it would be in one conveyor belt line where each item is individually sorted.


Recycling rubbish
The dual stream recycling method allows recyclable materials to be sorted beforehand. Contrary to the other method, the plastics will be sorted and processed separately from the paper and glass products. This essence makes it dual steam.









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.

Pro-Plastic Recycling

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:

Plastic Glass Steel
Landfill Space Saved 30 cubic yards 2 cubic yards 4 cubic yards
kWh Energy 5774 42 642

As you can see, it is clear environmentally that recycling  products can save tremendous amounts of space and energy for certain recyclable products.

Anti-Plastic Recycling

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.

Alternatives/Possible Solutions

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 ¢.


Has Nuclear Fusion Taken The Forefront in Sustainable Energy?

The Background and Its Current State

If someone were to tell you that nuclear fusion would ever take the helm for sustainable energy, you would look at them like they were crazy. Even now, the concept that the process of nuclear fusion can yield sustainable energy in the technologically advanced world we live in is absurd. But how did we even come to this discussion? What advances have we made to even make this concept a possibility? What is nuclear fusion anyway? By providing an overview of nuclear fusion and the massive project related to it, it may become a little clearer.

The way we create energy today has had detrimental effects on the Earth. Every year, coal power stations are burning million tons of fuel hurting the environment through excess carbon dioxide emissions. Eventually, even this way of creating energy for our daily tasks will soon become obsolete for we only have a limited amount of coal to burn and fuel to make. It’s just not sustainable the way it is and an alternative for a more sustained planet is required. This is where the discussion about nuclear fusion as a sustainable energy source came into being.

The current process looks something like this:


During this process, there is a lot of excess carbon dioxide being released and the transport of this energy causes even more strain for the environment. Overall, this process can be streamlined and many scientists are hoping that it is through nuclear fusion.

Now, What Is Nuclear Fusion?

According to ITER, (what exactly ITER is comes further down), fusion is the process at the core of our Sun. What we see as light and feel as warmth is the result of a fusion reaction: hydrogen nuclei collide, fuse into heavier helium atoms and release tremendous amounts of energy in the process. Another way to explain fusion is describing fusion as the reason why our sun keeps shining the way it does. Deep down in the sun’s core, there are lots and lots of electrons and protons. Under the extreme conditions within its core, protons join together and in the process, release energy (and lots of it!). For a more interactive and visual medium of understanding nuclear fusion, please see below: (Time Frame: 3:30 to 4:20 provides a good overview of fusion and fission!)

How Is Energy Created Through Fusion (In Space)?

Short answer: Through the movement of atoms and atoms fusing together. In a hot environment such as the sun, which reaches temperatures of 15,000,000° Celsius, hydrogen atoms are constantly on the move (and moving at very, very fast paces). Although the positive charges within the hydrogen atoms naturally lead them to repel, these repulsions are overcome due to the momentum at which they’re moving and the hydrogen atoms end up fusing, creating helium. The force is created due to the velocity of the fast paced electrons and that movement naturally creates an overwhelming force that leads to the fusion of the atoms. This whole process produces expansive amounts of energy and the sun does this process at a rate of 600 million tons of hydrogen into helium every single second, creating an overall great net of energy.

How May Energy Be Created Through Fusion (On Earth)?

It’s quite a different process to create fusion energy on Earth. One thing scientists have to take into account is that in its natural state, nuclear fusion occurs at the sun’s core meaning that it is impossible to truly recreate this environment in order to achieve the same gains as in space. For example, in the sun’s core, when electrons are separated from the nucleus, the nucleus plasma (a hot gas) is created. In this plasma environment, energy is yielded. Thus, in the ITER, in order to control the plasma, the fusion will be achieved in a tokamak (uses a magnetic field to confine a plasma in the shape of a torus [taken from here]) device where magnetic fields contain and control the plasma to keep the environment stable.

This is how fusion energy is essentially created on Earth and what the ITER aims to do:

  • For a helium nucleus, one neutron, and energy to be created, there is a fusion that occurs between deuterium and tritium (D-T) through the unlocking of the chemical bonds in the Hydrogen atom itself (Hydrogen is an abundant source that can be found in the production of natural gas and other sources)
  • The magnetic fields of the tokamak responds to the helium nucleus carrying an electric charge—the nucleus stays confined within the plasma
  • ~80% of the energy generated is taken away by the neutron which has no charge at all (and therefore, is not affected by the magnetic fields) but to account for this, the neutrons get absorbed by the tokamak and their energy is transferred as heat to the walls
  • The heat absorbed and generated gets dispersed and eventually is used to produce steam (which then goes through turbines) to produce the eventual electricity you use daily

(Steps and definitions above adapted from here)


Source: Plasma within tokamak device

The process of a fusion reaction therefore, considering the immense energy created at the Sun’s core, can provide the creation of energy in a much more sustainable way than the burning of coal. In fact, Jeff Forshaw in his article in The Guardian, explains the extent to which nuclear fusion can provide energy compared to its current counterpart coal. Forshaw observes, “For every 100 tonnes of coal we burn, fusion has the potential to deliver the same amount of energy, without any carbon dioxide emission…” and goes onto explain how this can very much be a sufficient alternative to our current energy production methods.

Benefits (Nuclear Fusion)

Some of the most significant benefits of going this route (nuclear fusion) for sustainable energy are:

  • By going through atomic changes such as from hydrogen atoms in helium, more energy is released than with any other method thus far including nuclear fission (main process that generates nuclear energy) by about 3 to 10x as much energy, on average, relative to its mean
  • Resources are abundant—light elements (such as from the sun) are among the most common on Earth
  • No radioactivity involved throughout the process—Thus, environmental impact is minimal
  • Clean, green energy that is sustainable for millions of years if pursued correctly

Downfalls (Nuclear Fusion)

  • Minimal experiments have actually been able to be taken out and because of this, a lot of the current observations are theories
  • The danger is ever so present—Since no experiments have physically been done, numerical values determining break even points and understanding certain limits are still unclear

(Please check here for more information on advantages/disadvantages and what’s being done in the present time)

Now that we know a little background about what nuclear fusion is and how it relates to our world, let’s shift our focus to the main focus of implementing nuclear fusion as a sustainable energy source via the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER).

Understanding Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity and How It Relates to Nuclear Fusion

According to Brittanica: In E = mc2 , Einstein concluded that mass (m) and kinetic energy (E) are equal, since the speed of light(c2) is constant. In other words, mass can be changed into energy, and energy can be changed into mass. The former process is demonstrated by the production of nuclear energy—particles are smashed and their energy is captured. The latter process, the conversion of energy into mass, is demonstrated by the process of particle acceleration, in which low-mass particles zipping through a device collide to form larger particles.

What ITER and Nuclear Fusion aims to do is to convert mass into energy, the first part of what the equation tries to explain. Mass and energy are essentially two sides of the same coin and thus, can be switched into one another. There are masses that are present within the tokamak such as the hydrogen atoms and electrons moving at very high paces. Through the Nuclear Fusion process, this energy is aimed to be converted into sustainable energy that may be used for day to day consumption.

For a more in-depth look at Einstein’s theory and its effect on the advancement of Nuclear Fusion, please look at:



ITER is essentially a very large-scale science experiment aimed to determine if it is feasible to use fusion energy as a legitimate energy source. According to their website, the ITER project has a goal of delivering ten times the power it consumes back as usable energy. Hypothetically, if the ITER machine is inputted with 75 MW of power, ITER should be able to produce upwards of 750 MW of fusion power resulting in a net energy gain—first of its kind to produce net energy (Enjoy ITER’s visual for this goal below!). Currently (with the most recent updates), the ITER machine is capable of inputting 50 MW of power ending up with 500 MW of fusion power. Even with this input and output combination, the ITER is still able to produce a net energy gain. If done at higher frequencies as expected, the energy will be abundant enough for use. Essentially, ITER aims to answer one of the biggest and most important questions of our time: Is it possible to capture fusion energy for commercial usage here on Earth?

q10Q=the ratio of fusion power to input power.

Building Process

Construction for the ITER began in 2007 and were divided into two phases: clearing of the land and levelling for construction of buildings and physical capital. The ITER is being situated in 180 hectares of land in southern France.

The Clearing Process

The clearing of 180 hectares of land, the first phase, took over one year to complete. During this process, they have tried very hard to protect local fauna and flora which were present long before the proposal to build ITER came into fruition.


The Levelling Process

Leveling of the acreage began in March 2008 lasting for one year total. The leveling has led to a near perfect flat platform where construction can now begin (315 meters above sea level). To achieve this near perfect flat surface, more than 2.5 million meters of rubble were removed.


Above are just the early phases of this massive project. Please see below for the other major phases to finally getting this ITER built.


Looking to the Future: DEMO

ITER is not the end for fusion energy. ITER is a bridge to the first plant (Demonstration Power Plant=DEMO) that will actually be the place where production of large-scale electricity will occur. DEMO’s conceptual design is planned to be completed in 2017. If ITER’s aims are achieved, DEMO will lead our already technology advanced world into a new generation: the Age of Fusion. As early as 2040, fusion energy could be at the helm leading the way. Or, at least, that’s the hope.

The Author’s Take: How’s The Future Looking?

To be completely honest, as I did my research, I didn’t believe in this process at all. The methods we use now to make energy seemed like the only viable options for our time. Considering that fusion takes place in very hot and dense environments within the Sun’s core, the likelihood of that same fusion here on Earth was a far fetch for me.

However, I am one to say that I believe nuclear fusion here on Earth is a viable method for sustainable energy in the near future. I believe that the strides that have been taken are tremendous and the years of research has paid off significantly. Considering that this field of research has yielded lots of failures and very few successes, it seems that the researchers and main players within the field are well equipped with the knowledge to move forward. The process is not simple but even within this complex process, progress is being made. As stated by Steven Cowley, director of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy near Abingdon in the UK, “We have waited 60 years to get close to controlled fusion. We are now close in both magnetic and inertial. We must keep at it. The engineering milestone is when the whole plant produces more energy than it consumes.” With this progress, the whole project seems all the more viable.

In comparison to other methods of sustainable energy, this method is easily the most efficient and effective in producing the most day to day energy consumption without hurting the Earth as we are right now with our current methods. Instead of burning coal, we can produce the same amount of energy or even more without the consequences of the the destructive coaling process. Some places of the country use coal because it is an abundant source but with nuclear fusion, the compounds and break downs of certain atoms in a controlled environment leads to energy production. With the ITER machine, we are able to do this in large amounts that can be used as an alternative sustainable energy source.

In order to see the efforts and progress being made, please take a look at this link:

Nuclear fusion will take us into the new generation of sustainable energy. It’s just a matter of time.


(All other sources are embedded within blog)