Show of hands. How many of you actively participate in recycling endeavors in your community? You schlep around your empty cans, jugs, and bottles. You pile them up with your used papers, then sort them all into bins so some poor schmoe down at the recycling center doesn’t have to. All so your city can save a few dimes on an already expensive endeavor. Ok, now show of hands, who thinks recycling is bullshit?
Let’s think about this honestly for a minute. Because, I think we’ve got our terms confused. What, exactly, is recycling? It’s the taking of something that’s already been used, and putting it back through the manufacturing cycle so that the material can be used again. That extra cycle is where the term recycling comes from! But, what is the cost of that extra cycle. Let’s break it down a bit. We’ll ignore the first cycle, since it’s going to get used for the first cycle regardless.
Let’s consider a plastic bottle. It’s been created, and used. It’s empty, so has no further use in it’s first cycle. You collect it with similar bottles, then submit it to the local recycling center. We’ll discount the energy that you use in collecting the bottle, as it really isn’t that much more work than you would use in throwing the bottle away. But, what about the energy that will be used in picking up or dropping off the bottle. You’ve got to either have someone pick up the bottle, or you have to drop it off at the recycling center. Once the bottle has been taken to the recycling center, it then has to be shipped to a factory where it can be broken down in a way that makes it recyclable. More energy wasted in transportation. Once it’s there, at the factory, it then has to be broken down. Depending on the process, that could involve melting the plastic under heat. It could mean squishing, cutting, and making the plastic into threads. Even more energy wasted. Once it’s been broken down, the resulting product must be taken to yet another factory that can then turn it into the “recycled” product.
By the time it’s recycled, it’s been through a manufacturing process three times. Does the extra cost in energy, pollutants, and work make it worth our while? I’m not sure that it does. Want to take a deeper look at some of this? Take a look at this video. Now, arguably, the show is called “Bullshit”, and anyone who uses that as the name of their show (or as a title for an article) is out to be a bit sensationalist. And, certainly, I don’t know that Penn and Teller count as experts. But, I do think they make some interesting points. There’s three parts to it, so it’s a bit long, but worth watching, I think. When you’re done, we’ll continue on below. P.S. as you can imagine, a show whose title is “Bullshit” has some NSFW language in it.
I admit, I like sensationalism. And, I’ll make another admission. I’m not entirely against recycling. But, I tend to think that the first two parts of the motto “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” are far more useful and important than the recycling. By reducing the amount of energy and products that we use, less needs to be made. By reusing the things that we can, we reduce the amount of products that will need to be recycled or thrown into a landfill. Instead of expecting someone else to ease my conscious, and take away my trash to be converted into something usable, I’d rather reduce the amount of trash I make. Less paper plates. Less non-reusable water bottles. Less stuff.
The one thing that I collect to send off to recycling is soda cans. Mostly, because I can drop them off at the local Humane Society where they take them to a scrap metal yard and sell them for cash. It’s an extra way to give to one of my favorite charities. Here’s some more sensationalism for you. The Humane Society is, essentially, a pet recycling center. People take their unwanted and used pets there, so that they can be washed, fed, given their shots, and sent back out to a new family.
I’ve gone on about recycling long enough. Now, it’s your turn. Is recycling bullshit? Scroll down a few inches on the screen and leave a comment. Do you agree that recycling might be bullshit? Do you recycle religiously? What steps do you take to reduce, reuse, and recycle? Heck, you can let me have it in the comments too, if you like. One small caveat in doing so, is that any excessive NSFW language will likely get edited out.
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Sustainable PF says
While I agree that recycling does use energy, and that the first 2 Rs of the 3 Rs are best to strive for, I can’t justify, or quantify the damage done by discarding recyclables by destining them for landfills. The long term affects of trash on our health and environment are simply too great.
Marie at FamilyMoneyValues says
We reuse more than recycle. and we get laughed at for doing so. I wash and re-use freezer and storage bags, plastic food containers, coffee cans, boxes, paper – basically anything that looks useful. When I read about estate sellers going through old peoples houses and laughing at the collections of reusable stuff – I get mad!
Miss T @ Prairie Eco-Thrifter says
I agree with SPF. Recycling does cost energy and money and resources like water but it is still a better option than landfills. To me it is the lesser of two evils.
One way to cut down on these things is to stop buying products in these containers. We reduced the amount of recycled waste by no longer buying bottled water. Our city has recycling bins so it is pretty easy though to recycle.
John | Married (with Debt) says
I need to check the videos, but Penn and Teller always offer though-provoking and well-researched claims.
We tried to recycle, but every time we set it out for our waste haulers to pick up, they never did. We followed all the guidelines and no luck. We gave up.
Jeff @ Sustainable Life Blog says
I’d have to say that this all depends on your situation, specifically your location – we’ve had places that charge by the amount of trash you throw, but recycling was free and they picked it up. Obviously, you can cut a significant portion from your waste stream if you recycle cans, bottles, etc.
but if you’ve got to sort all that junk yourself, drive it somewhere and put it in a bin, it can be a pain in the ass.
@sustainable PF , In a way, I agree. But, I lean more towards reducing the amount of trash we produce rather than recycling items that cost more to the environment than it does to just put them in a landfill. Perhaps we should be researching better ways to dispose (or create) products and packaging that are more bio-degradable so that when we have a landfill, it’s mostly bio-degraded?
@Marie , I struggle with my wife over reusing things. I tend to reuse to an extreme, and she has to continuously rein me in when my habits become unsafe, or unhealthy.
@Miss T, I wouldn’t argue against the fact that it might be better to spend a little bit more money to recycle something rather than put it into the landfill, but what about when recycling something means a higher toll on the environment than the toll of just putting it into the landfill?
@Krant , I think more needs to be done on that front. Reducing the items that we use that need to be recycled (or can’t be) and in effect reducing the number of things that go into landfills.
@John, They did seem to have some decent research behind them. I’ve watched a few of the other episodes of the show, and those too seem to be well researched.
@Jeff , Yes, location can play a big part into the consumers willingness to participate. Here, for instance, the city did a study on the feasibility of recycling pickup. What they found was that curbside pickup was expensive and that the citizens weren’t willing to pay very much to have the service.
I recycle soda cans and usually bring them to the center about twice per year. It is about 6 miles from my house. I will often have about 50-80 pounds worth of aluminum so the transportation costs amortized over that many cans is not that much. I am sure that it is less than mining ore.
We have dumpsters for recyclables in our condo complex. I separate out most of my recyclables and put them in those bins, but I save my aluminum cans separately and take them to a center as aluminum has a higher rate of return.
For what it’s worth, the recent addition of recycling bins has had the effect of increasing the number of homeless people that have started to wander through our complex. While I appreciate their drive to make money, this isn’t exactly a bonus to my property value.
The new mantra is Refuse Reduce Reuse and Recycle as a last resort. I think recycling is better than tossing materials into a landfill. Is it perfect? No way. Recycling is a gold mine for some playersand they depend on us all filling those blue bins every week.
B.B.- I think recycling is BS because we used to always take the time to separate our recycling into paper, plastic, and glass as our township instructs us to do. Then, when they truck comes around, they dump all three cans into the same truck, together in the same place. Talking about wasting my time!
We don’t have to sort our recycling, so I always recycle. It’s better than going to the landfill. One terrible thing I’ll admit here (as a frugal person) is that I recycle pop cans rather than return them for the five cent refund — I can’t waste my time schlepping them around when I don’t drink very much soda! I’m going to have to check into the humane society program, though — I would save cans for them!
I’m actually surprised that people would think that recycling is BS but each to his own. Yes, there is energy consumed, but wouldn’t there be energy consumed to create another ‘new’ bottle? And, then you would not only have the environmental repercussions of the one bottle but now you have 2 to deal with. Recycling is insurance for our environment and leads to less consumption. At least to me.
@Jerry, Not when it takes twice as much (or more) energy to recycle that bottle. If it only takes X energy to make the bottle, but 2X to recycle it, then it would cost 3X to make one bottle and recycle it, when it would only take 2X to make the first and second bottles.
Andrew @ 101 Centavos says
Aluminum cans are the only consumer items that are cost-effective to recycle in terms of net energy expended (Same applies on an indestrial scale to metals such as copper and stainless steel scrap.) Paper is the worst, again from an energy and resource perspective. Not only that, but there is additional environmental impact from the chemicals required to process and recycle paper pulp.
I think that when I accumulate 12 bottles and wait on line to get my 60 cents, and I realize I just wasted far more than 60 cents worth of time, that there’s something wrong.
Separating the papers for trash pickup, doesn’t both me.
The videos are a bit senstionalistic but I think it is cool to at least look at a topic often held as sacred in a different light.
For what its worth I usually bring in my cans – is a good use of my time? Probably not but I have a HUGE change jug and I am waiting for the day that it is too heavy to carry lol
I keep a paper bag next to the trashcan for recycling and the big recycle bin is next to the trash. It is so easy to recycle that I would feel guilty if I didn’t.
I certainly understand the claims of excessive energy use for recycling and know that some products can be turned around more efficiently than others. If we were really smart, we would recycle spent fuel cells (http://www.ericjrosenberg.com/2011/01/the-new-energy-economy/).
Also, I am not a Republican so I don’t hate the planet.
Penn and Teller seem to focus on the financial side of the equation and not about dealing with things like massive buildups at landfills.
@Miiockm In the video, (I forget which part it is) they discuss the issue of massive buildups at landfills and how it’s one of the biggest myths of recycling.
Felix Nagel says
Well perhaps the process of recycling still uses both energy and other resources, but I guess it all boils down to the purpose in which energy is consumed.
Steve Adcock says
We do recycle, but mainly because we get the recycle bin along with our trash bin and it is literally no additional effort on our part to throw the recyclables into the one bin and all trash into the other bin. It’s literally that stupid simple.
That said, there are a TON of studies out there that claim recycling these days winds up costing much more than just throwing it away would…kinda like the manufacturing of hybrid vehicles and the impact that process has on the environment even though drivers think they are doing something good.
Will we stop? I don’t know…it’s probably 50/50. 🙂
I think the energy used is more important than filling up landfills with just waste.