Why is Recycling Important


Before you read this article, let’s take a look at how much knowledge you currently have about recycling. Read the three bullet points below and see if you know which of these facts about recycling aluminum cans is true?

  • Recycling ONE aluminum can saves about the amount of energy to listen to your iPod for 15 minutes.
  • Recycling ONE HUNDRED cans could produce the energy needed to light your bedroom for two weeks.
  • It only takes 6 weeks for aluminum cans to be recycled and ready for reuse.

Did you pick the first bullet point, or the second or the third? Whichever fact you selected, you were correct, because all of the facts above are correct. And from these three simple facts you can already see the importance and positive effects of recycling.

For a large number of people in the United States, when they hear the word “Recycling”, the first thing they think of is the third “R” in the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” slogan that they learned in grade school. But most people probably do not know the background of recycling and personally I never understood what recycling was or why it was important, all I knew was that there was blue bin for recycling that was separate from the trash for the landfill.

In the simplest of terms, recycling is the process in which waste is converted into “new” reusable materials. Rather than throwing all solid waste into one large pile, recycling allows people to separate unusable waste, such as food scraps, from recyclable waste, water bottles or paper. The major items that are able to be recycled are paper, plastic, glass, metal, cardboard and even electronics. In some scenarios it is expensive to take a recycled material and transform it back into it’s original form, for example taking recycled paper and turning it back into new paper, so it may be used for another purpose.

In order to understand and learn more about the process of recycling, we are going to look at a few specific pieces of recyclable materials and see the journey they go on. Take a piece of paper, for example. You are at the printer and accidentally print one too many copies of your homework, so you recycle the extra copy. Once that recycling reaches the waste management facility, like the Lycoming facility we visited on our class trip, the waste is separated by type, paper with paper, plastic with plastic, etc. The paper is then mixed with water and chemicals in order to break the paper down. Next the wet paper mixture is chopped up and then heated to break the paper down into even smaller strands of cellulose, which is a type of organic material from plants. The mixture of cellulose strands is referred to as “pulp” or “slurry”. The pulp is then strained through multiple screens to prevent lumps of glue or plastic from the original paper. Finally the “paper” is de-inked, then bleached and mixed with water. This mixture is the mixture used to make new paper, so this mixture is used to make “new” recycled paper. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) paper is able to be recycled between 5 and 7 times before the fibers become too weak to construct paper. The diagram below shows you the entire process, for a newspaper, from the production of the original paper to through the steps for recycling.

A detailed diagram showing the process of making paper, recycling paper and produced “new” recycled paper.

You may be wondering if recycling that one piece of paper actually makes a difference, so lets take a look at paper recycling in the United States. One stark statistic that should impact you is that recycling one ton of paper, about 2000 pounds, saves 17 trees, on average. In 2009, about 63.4% of all paper used in the United States, about 53.5 million tons, was recycled, which saved 909,500,000 trees. In recent years, the use of paper has declined but the percentage of recycled paper is still growing slowly, and to me that seems pretty successful.

Now let’s take a look at a process that is slightly more complex: recycling glass. Recycled glass bottles or containers are taken to glass treatment plants, where the glass is cleaned and sorted by color. Next the glass is crushed into incredibly small pieces and melted down in 1000-degree F heat in order for easy molding. This “liquid” is then molded or mechanically blown into “new” glass products. While this process may not seem like more or less work than the paper process, the major difference in the glass example is the cost. When we visited the Lycoming facility, we were told glass is rarely recycled into new materials because it is too expensive, but let’s take a look at some concrete numbers and see if this is the case.

Overall there has been a major debate about whether or not recycling is worthwhile due to many factors, mainly the cost and the impact on the environment. For example in New York City, recycling of glass, plastic and metal cost $240 per ton, which is almost twice as much as it costs to simply throw those materials away. Obviously for some cities this cost will vary depending on the number and location of landfills, the cost of labor and the actual recycling process.

While some people want to stop recycling due to the cost, others support recycling because of its positive impact of the environment. Landfill sites release an increasing amount of greenhouse gases and harmful chemicals, so recycling reduces this pollution by decreasing how much waste enters the landfills. In addition recycling allows for less usage of raw materials, which in turn reduces the amount of deforestation and habitat destruction. Using raw materials also requires large amounts of energy, while recycling uses much less energy. In terms of new raw materials versus recycled materials, the environmental costs are very important. Producing recycled paper produces 73% less air pollution than the production of paper from raw materials. When glass and plastic materials are thrown into landfills, plastic will take up to 500 years to decompose, while glass will never decompose, it can only be eroded.

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A graph, from the 2013 report by the EPA, showing the recycling rates from 1960 until 2013.

In a 2013 report by the EPA, it was determined that since 1980 the number of people who recycle in the United States has increased, but there are still many things we can do in order to make recycling even more popular. In 1980, recycling and composting prevented 15 million tons of materials from being thrown into landfills. In 2013, this number jumped up to 87.2 million tons, almost 6 times the number from 1980. Preventing 87.2 million tons of waste from entering landfills stopped almost 186 million metric tons of CO2 from being released into the air, which is equivalent to removing 39 million cars from the road for a year, which is about 15.5% of all US cars on the road.

Now after reading this article you are probably wondering what you can do individually in terms of recycling to reduce your own material waste footprint. The first and most important step is to buy a recycling bin, if you don’t already have one. It may seem incredibly simple, and it is, but in the long run it is quite impactful. When you only have a trashcan, you will just throw everything in one big pile, but as soon as you have another bin for recyclables, you will think about what you’re throwing away and whether or not it is recyclable. Next, you should research the recycling rules and guidelines in your community. Some neighborhoods have curbside pickup, while others require you to bring your recyclables to locations throughout the community. For example, my cousins live in Michigan and they have curbside recycling for everything except glass in their town. They have to put the glass in a separate container and bring it to a sorting desk, mostly these are located near grocery stores, and they are given small monetary “rewards” for recycling their glass. The other important thing you can do, in addition to recycling, is buying recycled materials. Without people buying recycled items, there is no legitimacy given to the process of actually making these products. In most grocery stores, there are sections within the aisles of home supplies where the recycled materials are located, such as recycled paper plates or napkins. Finally the last thing you can do is spread the word about recycling and it’s importance. The next time you see your friend or family member throwing away an item that you know can be recycled, stop them and tell them why recycling is important. This will, hopefully, create a domino effect, with them going on to tell their friends and so on and so forth, until everyone is recycling. You read about the immense change from 1980 until 2013 in terms of recycling in the United States, so  2imagine what can happen over the next 30 years.




The Keystone XL Pipeline: Good or Bad?

(Source: http://www.davisvanguard.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/keystone-oil-pipeline.jpg)

What is the Keystone Pipeline? Is that different from the Keystone XL Pipeline?

The Keystone Pipeline is an oil pipeline that runs from Canada through the United States, commissioned in 2010. The entire pipeline is comprised of four phases, the first three phases are currently in use, and the fourth is awaiting approval from the United States Government. Phase IV is officially called Keystone XL because it duplicates the pipeline from Phase I, running through more areas of the US mid-west.

The Keystone Pipeline (Phase I) delivers oil from Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska and Roxana, Illinois, using 300 miles of piping. This phase was completed in 2010. The Keystone-Cushing Extension (Phase II) runs 300 miles from Steele City to storage and distribution facilities (tank farm) in Cushing Oklahoma. Phase II was completed in 2011. The Gulf Coast Extension (Phase III) runs 487 miles from Cushing to the refineries in Port Arthur, Texas, was completed in January 2014. A lateral pipeline, which will take oil to refineries in Houston Texas, is currently under construction. Finally, the Keystone XL Pipeline (Phase IV) is a proposal to duplicate the pipeline from Phase I from Alberta to Nebraska using a larger pipe, over a shorter distance. This plan included running through Baker, Montana where the U.S. crude oil reserves are located.

Phases I and II are able to move about 590,000 barrels of oil per day and Phase III is able to deliver 700,000 barrels of oil per day to the Midwestern and Texas refineries, respectively. You are probably wondering what these numbers mean, but it is simple. By looking at the United States oil production in November 2014, we can see 9,000,000 barrels of oil were produced per day1. Based on these numbers, we can see that the oil from the Keystone Pipeline only accounts for about 10% of the United States oil production, so that raises the question about the necessity or importance of the pipeline.

WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 6: Proposed Keystone XL Extension map. (Map by Laris Karklis/The Washington Post)
Proposed Keystone XL Extension map. (Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/business/keystone-xl-pipeline-primer/jpt/w-Keystone296.jpg)

How do we extract the oil from the oil sands in Canada?

The process used to produce the oil from the oil sands for the pipeline is called surface mining. The main focus of this process is removing bitumen, a semi-solid form of petroleum, from the sands. Surface mining is a form of mining that removes the soil and rock the cover the minerals, in this case bitumen. Surface mining is most frequently used for the mining of “commercially viable” minerals that are close to the surface.

(Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/business/keystone-xl-pipeline-primer/)

If the pipeline was proposed in 2008, why hasn’t construction started yet?

Since the proposal for Phase IV of the pipeline there has been political controversies surrounding it. The extension was proposed in 2008, and by 2010, the Canadian National Energy Board approved it, now all the proposal needed was approval from the United States government. In December 2011, Congress, led by a core group of Republican senators, passed legislation forcing President Obama to make a decision on Keystone XL in 60 days. By January 2012, the president had denied the application for the construction to begin. But in March 2012, President Obama did approve the construction of Phase III (Gulf Coast Extension), which to some supporters of Phase IV seemed contradictory.

Map showing how the House of Representatives voting breakdown on November 14, 2014 for or against the Keystone XL pipeline
Map showing House of Representatives vote breakdown on 11/04/2014 for/against the Keystone XL pipeline (green – support; red – against) [Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keystone_Pipeline]
Skip ahead to January 29th, 2015, a bill approving the construction of the Keystone XL was passed in the Senate with a vote of 62 to 36. Less than two weeks later the bill was passed in the House of Representatives 270 to 152. To the dismay of the supporters, President Obama vetoed the bill on February 24th, 2015, and the Senate was unable to override the veto, which requires a 2/3 majority, with only a 62 to 37 vote.


Who supports the Keystone XL Pipeline? Who is against the extension?

The pipeline has faced rejection and received support from people through the United States and Canada. One on hand, the Canadian government, oil companies and a handful of union laborers support the project because they believe it’s construction will produce a large amount of jobs. Residents in Montana and North Dakota also support Keystone XL because it would be much simpler for them to ship their oil to the refineries in Texas. Those in favor of the pipeline also focus on the concept that the pipeline saves money on the transportation of the crude oil. It costs about $10-$15 to transport one barrel of crude oil by train, while the pipeline cuts down the cost to about $5 per barrel.

(Support rally in front of Iowa’s state capital building [Source: http://keystone-xl.com/])
On the other hand, environmentalists and other landowners along the proposed pipeline have been in opposition to the Keystone XL. These people have argued that building the pipeline will make it much more difficult for the United States to lower their use of fossil fuels and it will produce more of Canada’s oil sands. As you can see by the picture below many people are outraged about the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. This image shows a scene from March 2nd, 2014 when about 1,000 student protestors from Georgetown University marched to the White House to show their opposition to the pipeline. Many of the students were arrested for zip-tying themselves to the fence and laying on the black tarp, meant to represent an oil spill.

Students protesting against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline chant slogans in front of the White House in Washington,DC on March 2, 2014. tudents from around the country gathered to oppose the tar sands oil pipeline from Canada, which they say is dangerous for the environment. US Secretary of State John Kerry is set to announce in the coming months whether the proposed $5.4 billion oil pipeline serves the national interest and will be constructed following years of confrontation between environmentalists and the oil industry. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
Students protesting against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline in front of the White House in Washington,DC on March 2, 2014. (Source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jamie-henn/keystone-xl-protest_b_4886208.html)

What are the benefits or concerns people see with the construction of the Keystone Pipeline XL?

Two of the main points of controversy between the supporters of the pipeline and the opposition to the pipeline are the creation of jobs and environmental concerns. Those who support the pipeline believe that it will produce thousands of jobs, if not more. The supporters believe the pipeline will increase construction jobs as well as jobs for the operators of the pipeline, in addition to jobs created indirectly in related industries.

“The Keystone XL Pipeline project is estimated to bring in $20 billion of private sector investment into the American economy, create 20,000 direct jobs, spur the creation of 118,000 spin-off jobs and pay out $5 billion in taxes to local counties over the project’s lifetime.” – Gene Green 

United States Representative for Texas’s 29th congressional district, Gene Green, an vocal supporter of the Keystone XL Pipeline, believes the jobs created by Phase IV will be incredibly beneficial for the United States.

Those opposed to the pipeline also agree that jobs will be created but only for a limited time. The graph below illustrates their opinion – they predict that after the construction is completed the number of jobs will greatly decrease.

(Source: http://www.popsci.com/slippery-truths?image=3)

When it comes to environmental concerns, the main focus is the effects of oil sands development on global warming. Extracting the bitumen from the ground emits about 15% more greenhouse gas emissions than the production process for a barrel of crude oil in the United States. James E. Hansen, NASA climate scientist and activist, said “if all the oil was extracted from the oil sands it would be game over when it comes to stabilizing the climate”. Industries in Canada are supportive of the pipeline and want to increase the oil production from the tar sands, but environmentalists have an issue with that goal. In a recent report, Reality Check: Air Pollution and the Tar Sands, environmentalists have determined that if the production of tar sands triples, which is what the industries want “it would mean a 230% increase in nitrogen oxides pollution, a 160% increase in sulphur dioxide emissions and a 190% increase in particulate matter”.

The Keystone XL pipeline also runs through multiple states throughout the U.S. and some residents are concerned about the danger of oil spills. For example, on January 17th, 2015, there was a massive oil spill, 50,000 gallons of crude oil, into the Yellowstone River.

Crude Oil spilling into the Yellowstone River
Crude Oil spilling into the Yellowstone River (Source: http://www-tc.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/next/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/CROP-bridger-pipeline-river-overview-1-19-2015.jpg)

What many news outlets failed to mention during this horrible event is that the Keystone XL pipeline would be build relatively close to this pipeline that spilled, but more importantly a spill from the Keystone XL in this area would be much worse. One specific example of a possible spill is in the Ogallala Aquifer, a fresh water reserve that spans eight midwestern states – Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming. The Ogallala Aquifer provides fresh drinking water for two million United States residents and supports $20 million of agriculture. An oil spill from the Keystone XL pipeline in the region of the aquifer would be detrimental to millions of people in addition to the United States agricultural economy.

(Source: http://presscore.ca/2011/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/keystone-water-piepline.jpg)

Overall it is unclear whether or not the Keystone XL Pipeline will be approved in the near future, or at all. It is still a pressing issue that many prospective presidential candidates are being questioned on. So we may need to wait until the 2016 Presidential Election in order to see what the outcome for the pipeline is.