Myth Recycling Always Protects the Environment

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Fact: Recycling is a manufacturing process, and therefore it too has environmental impact. The U.S. Office of Technology Assessment says that it is "not clear whether secondary manufacturing [i.e., recycling] produces less pollution per ton of material processed than primary manufacturing." Recycling merely changes the nature of pollution—sometimes decreasing it, and sometimes increasing it.

This effect is particularly apparent in the case of curbside recycling, which is mandated or strongly encouraged by governments in many communities around the country. Curbside recycling requires that more trucks be used to collect the same amount of waste materials. Instead of one truck picking up 40 pounds of garbage, one will pick up four pounds of recyclables and a second will collect 36 pounds of rubbish.

Los Angeles has estimated that due to curbside recycling, its fleet of trucks is twice as large as it otherwise would be—800 vs. 400 trucks. This means more iron ore and coal mining, more steel and rubber

Fast Fact

A study by the Environmental Protection Agency found that recycled paper processing creates higher levels of toxic substances than virgin paper processing.

Garbage Barge
The 1987 Mobro garbage barge (above) incident is credited by the author as the beginning of the modern era of recycling. The Mobro wandered the oceans for two months in search of disposal.

manufacturing, more petroleum extracted and refined for fuel—and of course all that extra air pollution in the Los Angeles basin as the 400 added trucks cruise the streets.

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Responses

  • Nic Hatton
    I'm afraid you completely miss the point. We live in a planet with finite resource so recycling is the only way to pursue our material sustainability for generations to come. The environmental impact of recycling does exist but it goes down as you start to recycle more. <br />When your waste collection trucks pick up 36 kg of recyclables and 4 kg of general waste, your argument goes on its head. (most people in Europe recycle more than they waste; don't know in the US but I would imagine it's the same).
    8 years ago
  • Andy from Workshopshed
    I've never heard any one claim this particular &quot;myth&quot; although the point on chemicals is a good one. I'm sure domestic use of chemicals is on the up as in the UK we typically wash bottles and cans before sending them for recycling.<br />We've had decades of improvements for some of the refining processes and only a few on recycling so there's got to be lots of room for improvement on our recycling techniques.<br />On the topic of the weight of rubbish collected, I wonder how much of our rubbish is water by mass? If that could be removed at source then the weight of materials would be less. Obviously less packaging and thinner packaging is also another way to reduce that backhaul.
    8 years ago

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