Recycling: Unintended Consequences

The process of making new things out of the old materials is known as recycling.  It is important to understand that the method of processing for different materials varies. For example, recyclables like glass, aluminum cans and steel need to be melted into a liquid form and then remolded into new products. Recyclables such as glass, paper and certain plastic products may have to be crushed, or shredded, as part of the processing to extract the basic elements or raw materials for use in making new products.

People interested in climate change play an important role in making recycling a success by purchasing recycled products as the process of recycling is prevalent based on the fact that recycling helps:  Minimize waste products placed in landfills, mitigate global warming, conserve energy, reduce pollution, and save money. 

The practice of recycling has been around for thousands of years. However, it has been affected predominantly by supply and demand, much as it is today.  Recycling has a history that dates back to the historic times. As early as 400 BC (and even earlier), people have been recycling.  For example, archaeological evidence indicates that glass from the imperial Byzantine times was being recycled in the ancient city of Sagalassos, located in current day Turkey.

There is also evidence that early Romans recycled bronze coins into statues that could be sold at a higher monetary value than the original coins. In hard times (wartime), metals from everything like jewelry and coins were being melted for weapons or other necessary goods. Pottery recycling operations have been uncovered as well. Archaeologist also deduced from waste remnants about the history of recycling – that recycling was a popular practice during times of distress. For example, less waste remains were found where there were also other indicators of distress such as famine, war and widespread illness. During these times of distress, new materials might have been scarce, making the recycling of waste necessary.

In 1981 Resource Integration Systems (RIS) in collaboration with Laidlaw International tested the first blue box recycling system on 1500 homes in Kitchener, Ontario. Due to the success of the project the City of Kitchener put out a contract for public bid in 1984 for a recycling system citywide. Laidlaw won the bid and continued with the popular blue box recycling system. Today hundreds of cities around the world use the blue box system or a similar variation.

Many European countries have developed more successful recycling programs, with Austria and Germany boasting the highest recycling rates at 63 and 62 percent, respectively. Here is a graph published by Planet Aid which reflects the global rates in 2015:

According to National Recycling Coalition, recycling creates 1.1 million U.S. jobs, $236 billion in gross annual sales and $37 billion in annual payrolls. Here are some environmental recycling benefits and facts:

  • A national recycling rate of 30 percent reduces greenhouse gas emissions as much as removing nearly 25 million cars from the road;
  • Recycling benefits the air and water by creating a net reduction in ten major categories of air pollutants and eight major categories of water pollutants;
  • It takes 95 percent less energy to recycle aluminum than it does to make it from raw materials. Making recycled steel saves 60 percent, recycled newspaper 40 percent, recycled plastics 70 percent, and recycled glass 40 percent. These savings far outweigh the energy created as by-products of incineration and landfilling;
  • Recycling and composting diverted nearly 70 million tons of material away from landfills and incinerators in 2000, up from 34 million tons in 1990-doubling in just 10 years;
  • Every ton of paper that is recycled saves 17 trees;
  • In the U.S., processing minerals contributes almost half of all reported toxic emissions from industry, sending 1.5 million tons of pollution into the air and water each year. Recycling can significantly reduce these emissions;
  • In 2000, recycling resulted in an annual energy savings equal to the amount of energy used in 6 million homes (over 660 trillion BTUs). In 2005, recycling is conservatively projected to save the amount of energy used in 9 million homes (900 trillion BTUs);
  • Every bit of recycling makes a difference. For example, one year of recycling on just one college campus, Stanford University, saved the equivalent of 33,913 trees and the need for 636 tons of iron ore, coal, and limestone;
  • When one ton of steel is recycled, 2,500 pounds of iron ore, 1,400 pounds of coal and 120 pounds of limestone are conserved; and
  • Mining is the world’s most deadly occupation. On average, 40 mine workers are killed on the job each day, and many more are injured. Recycling reduces the need for mining.

Recycling is generally far better than sending waste to landfills and relying on new raw materials to drive the consumer economy. It takes two-thirds less energy to make products from recycled plastic than from virgin plastic. By the last official measure in 2005, Americans recycle an estimated 32 percent of their total waste, which averages nearly a ton per person per year, around a third of which is plastic. Our recycling efforts save the greenhouse gas equivalent of removing 39.6 million cars from the road.

But not all plastic can be recycled, and only about 6.8 percent of the total plastic used in the U.S. actually goes that route—although the rate is higher with bottles: 37 percent for soft drink and 28 percent for milk and water bottles.

While recycling does keep many discarded items out of landfills and preserves natural resources, it also has some disadvantages, such as the expense and pollution that come from operating recycling equipment, the production of methane gas and the false notion that using recyclable items wastefully is acceptable.

The process of recycling many different products leads to the development of methane gas. While many recycling plants contain the methane, when it leaks, methane can deplete the ozone layer and contribute to global warming, as it is a greenhouse gas. Maintaining and operating recycling equipment is extremely expensive, and having an entire network of factories processing recycling leads to additional pollution.

When recycling facilities have poor management, the hygiene of the area can suffer as a result. Recycling dumpsters that have been abandoned sometimes have toxins remaining from recyclables, and the toxins have the potential to enter the groundwater or the air as a pollutant.

Incinerating waste also causes problems, because plastics tend to produce toxic substances, such as dioxins, when they are burnt. Gases from incineration may cause air pollution and contribute to acid rain, while the ash from incinerators may contain heavy metals and other toxins. Because of these problems there are active campaigns against waste incineration.

Contamination is one of the biggest obstacles in the recycling industry right now. The worst part is that sometimes we don’t know when something’s contaminated—until it’s too late. For example, hundreds of buildings in Taiwan made from recycled steel have been giving people gamma radiation poisoning—and not the good kind—for the past twelve years. Since late 1992, more than 100 building complexes containing public and private schools and nearly 1,000 apartments have been identified in Taiwan with elevated levels of gamma-radiation from construction steel contaminated with 60Co. Due to improper handling of 60Co contaminated scrap steel in late 1982 and 1983, contaminated construction materials have been widely distributed throughout the country. These contaminated construction materials have generated elevated radiation exposures to members of the public in Taiwan.

It is recognized that recycling paper saves energy, reduces pollution, preserves trees and conserves landfill space, but it is a messy process that uses caustic chemicals and produces harmful byproducts and emissions. The industry is making strides in the development of more earth-friendly techniques, but the best way to reduce paper-related pollution and energy use is to cut back on paper consumption, which will decrease the demand for new or recycled paper.

Although recycling paper saves 28 to 70 percent–depending on the facility–of the energy used for making virgin paper, this savings is controversial because of the type of energy used in these two processes. Paper recycling uses fossil fuels while the production process for virgin paper fiber employs waste products from timber to supply a high percentage of its energy requirements. Moreover, recycled paper is less energy-friendly than plastic. The paper bag recycling process uses 98 percent more energy than that for recycled plastic bags.

When recycling facilities remove inks from paper, the waste makes its way into the water stream. Metals from printing inks, including copper, lead, zinc, chromium and cadmium, enter the water stream. Waste water from paper recycling often contains dioxins as well, though experts are unable to determine their precise origin.

Waste paper reprocessing produces a sludge that contains solids including small fibers, ink from the de-inking process and fillers. This waste, including the heavy metals from the inks, is often sent to landfills. Incineration is an alternative, but this process releases dangerous emissions, including dioxins and hydrocarbons, as well as the heavy metals from the inks. The ash that remains after incineration also is consigned to landfills.

Recycling programs use effective advertising to convince consumers they can help the planet by recycling their waste. This advertising, perhaps inadvertently, sends the message that consumption doesn’t matter so long as you recycle what you don’t use. Because recycling does create pollution, reducing consumption is the most effective way to help the environment.

Unfortunately, many people believe that if recycling is available, using recycleable products should be acceptable.  However, it is better for the environment to use reusable products, as then the pollution that goes into recycling does not become a necessity.  Here are some ways to save the environment:

  1. Say “No” to plastic straws;
  2. Use cloth bags instead of plastic bags when buying groceries;
  3. Instead of using plastic wraps, use resalable containers;
  4. Avoid using paper cups and bottle water;
  5. Use the recycled paper for copier and computer;
  6. Use cloth napkins instead of using paper napkins;
  7. Use electronic mails instead of using papers and envelopes;
  8. Use dish cloths instead of using paper towels;
  9. Wear clothes that do not require dry-cleaning;
  10. Use both sides of paper to print reports;
  11. Find a way to reuse old newspapers;
  12. Use cloth diapers;
  13. Recycle your water by rearranging your plumbing with the idea to avoid using clean water for toilets;
  14. Reuse unwanted paper;
  15. Reuse boxes;
  16. Avoid colour printing;
  17. Purchase only recycled toner and ink; and
  18. Reduce margins of the reports to print more on each page.

While these suggestions may appear to be negligible, they have a potential to help avoid unintended consequences of recycling.