Don’t worry, this probably won’t be the article that tells you all of those hours you’ve spent cleaning, deciding, and sorting your recycling has been for nothing.
It hasn’t been for nothing, but maybe it’s been for less than we believe. So, let’s get into it.
What good does recycling do?
Recycling of course, does a lot of good. At its core, recycling is meant to maximize the use of materials and resources by turning a used product into usable material again...as opposed to only using raw materials.
Creating one ton of paper can use 3,000 Kilowatt Hours less energy than virgin paper would require. And recycling aluminium such as soda cans will save upwards of 95% energy when compared to raw aluminum. This material is amazing in its ability to be recycled over and over again.
This is compared to 60% energy savings from recycling steel, 40% for paper and glass, and 70% for recycled plastic. As we know, it’s great to save energy because currently much of our energy comes from sources which harm the planet.
Let’s not also forget the importance of saving materials like wood from trees, or plastics from petroleum. While a resource like oil is never renewable, trees and wood can be...but only if they are managed correctly, which oftentimes they are not.
Since raw materials often require water to either grow, manufacture, or extract, recycling also has the potential to save water. And of course we’ll see that this may not equate to water saved in the end.
What bad does recycling do?
When trying to answer the question of “is recycling worth it?”, something that carries a lot of weight is whether or not recycling does anything bad for the environment.
The most straight up answer is: recycling doesn’t do anything worse than regular manufacturing does. As we learned when we went over paper recycling, oftentimes recycling requires resources like water and energy, and it can even generate waste that must be disposed of properly. This is why it’s so important to learn about where the products are being recycled and what kind of technology they are using to reduce waste, water, and energy.
In addition to the impacts similar to manufacturing, recycling can potentially also cause some additional harm. And that harm is a little less able to be measured. Recycling, if we aren’t educated on it, can give us the false sense of doing good. It can also relieve the guilt of over consuming material goods because when we are done with them they won’t have as much of an impact...so we think. But as we’ve learned, recycle is at the end of reduce reuse and recycle for a reason, and reduce is also first for a reason. So buying more unnecessary things with the excuse that they will be recycled is not a sustainable solution.
How much recycling actually gets recycled?
Relying on recycling to be sustainable becomes even more wobbly when we realize how much of our recycling actually gets recycled. With only 8% of plastic (and some percentages even lower) getting recycled, we must ask the question: is recycling worth it, or is our time better spent doing other things like reducing our waste, eating more green, or driving less?
There are materials that can be recycled in a closed loop system, such as glass and metal, but plastic and paper cannot. Luckily, a larger percentage of glass and metal actually makes it to the recycling system, but it is still less than should be.
Is it a sustainable model?
So, is recycling worth it? It just isn’t that easy, and it probably depends on us as individuals to decide if it’s worth it to us.
The thing is, there are island size garbage patches floating around in our oceans, trash is on land leaching toxins in our soils, and polluting rivers and streams too. That trash, must be cleaned up. And if possible, that trash should be turned into something useful as opposed to just thrown into a landfill.
We have a problem of both cleaning up our existing waste, as well as preventing further waste from entering into the environment. Recycling everything won’t prevent waste from entering the environment, only reducing our consumption can do that.
Recycling can turn the trash that we already have into something useful, but it should be viewed as a last resort as opposed to an excuse to over-consume and to further strip the planet of its resources.
Is recycling worth it? That’s for you to decide. Some of us are overwhelmed by all of the different things to incorporate in a sustainable life. And because of this we try and only choose a few things that have the most impact, in that case...maybe recycling isn’t one of those things.
If we aren’t overwhelmed by all the different things and we are looking for something else to do, of course we should be recycling. But we should be educated about how much good recycling actually does in order to avoid a false sense of good.