Author Topic: Is Recycling Good for the Environment?  (Read 7041 times)

GrayGhost

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Is Recycling Good for the Environment?
« on: July 09, 2014, 09:54:44 PM »
The kind of recycling MMM generally talks about--re-using construction materials and such that would have been trashed otherwise--is almost unquestionably good for the environment, since it requires less stuff to be cleaned, processed, prepared, packaged, shipped, and sold. Likewise, I don't think anyone could argue that it's a bad thing to repurpose various things that might be thrown away in lieu of buying new stuff.

But what about typical recycling, as in the recycling of paper and plastic products? Is it good for the environment, or is it just a feel-good ritual?

To answer this question, I think a lot of us will have to drop our "common sense" because we have essentially been raised to recycle and the assumption that it's good for the environment is rarely ever substantiated, let alone challenged.

Here are, as far as I can see, the parameters. If recycling is good for the environment, it must:
Reduce the amount of raw resources being used
Reduce pollution
Create safe products
Be cost effective in terms of labor and materials used in the recycling process

I am not sure I've arrived at my answer yet, but after checking a few wikipedia pages, reading a few articles, and watching Penn and Teller's episode on the issue, I am pretty skeptical about--at least--recycling plastics. Most plastic sent to recycling plants seems to be just thrown away. And the recycling industry, naturally, wants people to keep recycling so that it stays in business, and recycling is such a part of our culture that few people seem to really question it.

I have to do more research, but as of now, I can safely say that we should use less stuff--a LOT less stuff--and repurpose what we already have before thinking about disposing of it.

greaper007

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Re: Is Recycling Good for the Environment?
« Reply #1 on: July 09, 2014, 10:04:03 PM »
I've seen that Penn and Teller episode and have to agree that it's a mixed bag.     I went on a tour of the boulder recycling center with my son's school and it was surprising what they could no longer process due to the switch over to single stream.     For instance clam shell plastic containers are now off the list as the machinery can't separate them for other recyclables.   I wish I would have thought to ask about the plastics before I arrived.

Here's my thoughts on the issue.    Paper, glass and aluminum and steel are easily recycled.    The net energy use and pollution of recycling metals like aluminum in particular are also considerably lower than those required to mine and refine said metals.     With that in mind, I try not to buy products that aren't packaged in easily recycled containers.    Considering that most of my purchases occur at grocery stores that's pretty easy to do.    There are some plastics here and there like milk containers, but being mindful goes a long way.
« Last Edit: July 09, 2014, 10:16:23 PM by greaper007 »

CDP45

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Re: Is Recycling Good for the Environment?
« Reply #2 on: July 09, 2014, 10:54:09 PM »
Any paper that has come into contact with food or has a coating to contain food isn't recyclable.

warfreak2

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Re: Is Recycling Good for the Environment?
« Reply #3 on: July 10, 2014, 05:55:47 AM »
Here are, as far as I can see, the parameters. If recycling is good for the environment, it must:
Reduce the amount of raw resources being used
Reduce pollution
Create safe products
Be cost effective in terms of labor and materials used in the recycling process

You're missing the most important one: recycling reduces the use of landfill.

I've seen that Penn and Teller episode and have to agree that it's a mixed bag.
P&T's Bullshit! episode on the topic was very weaksauce. The main argument was that most things aren't worth recycling because the free market doesn't support it; that idea, that something can't be worthwhile without also being profitable, was never explicitly stated, let alone questioned. But in fact, even if you do accept that absurd premise, the argument still falls apart: repeat after me, we don't live in a free market. We don't!

It's cheaper for us to shove many recyclable materials into landfill than to recycle them, but only because we aren't paying for the landfill. C'mon, Penn, if recycling isn't worth doing because it has to be paid for by the government, you can't ignore the fact that landfill, too, is paid for by the government.

matchewed

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Re: Is Recycling Good for the Environment?
« Reply #4 on: July 10, 2014, 06:10:11 AM »
Here are, as far as I can see, the parameters. If recycling is good for the environment, it must:
Reduce the amount of raw resources being used
Reduce pollution
Create safe products
Be cost effective in terms of labor and materials used in the recycling process

I can see the reduction of raw materials. I can see reducing pollution. I can also see-ish creating safe products (the creation of unsafe products isn't necessarily good or bad for the environment depending on what you mean by safe and whether the intended use of the product can be changed so that it is now "safe"). What do you mean by cost effective? Does that mean if it's cheaper to make a brand new widget rather than recycle widgets and you just throw old widgets into the trash it is suddenly good for the environment because... ECONOMICS!? Your criteria includes things that don't have to do with the environment. Why are you including them?

And why do I always get the heeby jeebies when someone tells me I have to let go of my common sense in order to accept something? UFO people, Bigfoot people...etc.

The knitter

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Re: Is Recycling Good for the Environment?
« Reply #5 on: July 10, 2014, 06:19:56 AM »
Here are, as far as I can see, the parameters. If recycling is good for the environment, it must:
Reduce the amount of raw resources being used
Reduce pollution
Create safe products
Be cost effective in terms of labor and materials used in the recycling process

I can see the reduction of raw materials. I can see reducing pollution. I can also see-ish creating safe products (the creation of unsafe products isn't necessarily good or bad for the environment depending on what you mean by safe and whether the intended use of the product can be changed so that it is now "safe"). What do you mean by cost effective? Does that mean if it's cheaper to make a brand new widget rather than recycle widgets and you just throw old widgets into the trash it is suddenly good for the environment because... ECONOMICS!? Your criteria includes things that don't have to do with the environment. Why are you including them?

And why do I always get the heeby jeebies when someone tells me I have to let go of my common sense in order to accept something? UFO people, Bigfoot people...etc.

I think by "common sense" OP means convention, much like MMM asks us to question convention about spending.

I've often wondered the same thing. I don't think recycling is bad, and won't stop recycling the things I come into contact with. But it takes energy to run a recycling plant, having an indirect impact on the environment just in another form. It's much better to simply not use those things in the first place.

So rather than feel good about recycling all the plastic bottles I buy, I don't buy them in the first place. (Unfortunately my DH has started buying up Gatoraidsp for work). I think a culture change in that direction would have a bigger impact on the environment than more recycling. But that's just an opinion, and not one I've researched, so who knows.

MayDay

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Re: Is Recycling Good for the Environment?
« Reply #6 on: July 10, 2014, 06:42:10 AM »
My H has done lifecycle analysis for a company that has regular and recycled paper products. The recycled ones had a larger environmental footprint.

Another example is sugar cane paper. A local green store sells it, and I bought some. Then the hubs told me they burn the canes leftovers for the sugar processing, so if they are making paper with it instead, they now have to burn natural gas or something else.

BarkingSquirrel

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Re: Is Recycling Good for the Environment?
« Reply #7 on: July 10, 2014, 06:49:34 AM »
Quote
(Unfortunately my DH has started buying up Gatoraidsp for work)

They do sell the powdered mix for gatorade -- one plastic jar vs. many. 

matchewed

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Re: Is Recycling Good for the Environment?
« Reply #8 on: July 10, 2014, 07:13:19 AM »
My H has done lifecycle analysis for a company that has regular and recycled paper products. The recycled ones had a larger environmental footprint.

Another example is sugar cane paper. A local green store sells it, and I bought some. Then the hubs told me they burn the canes leftovers for the sugar processing, so if they are making paper with it instead, they now have to burn natural gas or something else.

Define larger environmental footprint. How is that weighed?

smalllife

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Re: Is Recycling Good for the Environment?
« Reply #9 on: July 10, 2014, 07:51:43 AM »
This statement is qualified:

-Assumption 1: You try to refuse packaging as much as possible (the updated recycling mantra: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle) by either not buying the product or finding a version with the least amount of non-recyclable materials (including all plastics).  It's not that hard in the grand scheme of things.

-Assumption 2: what you do buy is in glass, aluminum, steel, etc or from bulk bins (which still have packaging, but hopefully less) whenever possible.

Once those assumptions are met, what goes into the recycling stream is very effectively recycled or compostable and therefore better for the environment than recycling without those qualifiers.  Recycling is a last resort, but an effective one if people put in a little effort.

Economically speaking, the cost savings from not buying plastic "crap" and making food from scratch makes this cheaper for the end user than buying disposable products over and over again.  As to the business level economics, I'm not sure.

enigmaT120

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Re: Is Recycling Good for the Environment?
« Reply #10 on: July 10, 2014, 09:18:40 AM »
I don't know.  Paper products that go to a land fill are essentially sequestered CO2, if that matters to you.  Unless they break down a lot faster than I think they do.  And at least the plastic that goes to a land fill isn't getting burned, so it's just as sequestered as the oil was from which it was made.  I still like the little mantra "reduce, reuse, recycle."  Isn't there another one?

What good is a mantra if I can't remember it?


greaper007

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Re: Is Recycling Good for the Environment?
« Reply #11 on: July 10, 2014, 09:53:34 AM »
Without quoting everyone above, plastic recycling is really a mixed bag.    A lot shapes and types of plastic are not easily recyclable in the single stream system.   Really, only PET and HDPE are easily recycled.     Thus they're put into a landfill at the recycling plant, or they ruin a batch when they're reprocessed.  Another problem is that these products often aren't used in a closed loop cycle like aluminum is.    Instead, they're often downgraded to plastic lumber or carpet fibers that are generally placed in landfills at the end of their useful life.    Yet manufacturers continue to push plastic convenience items like water bottles and soft drink containers under the moniker of "recyclable."

I feel less strongly about paper.    Unlike fossil fuel sources, domestic timber is generally very well managed these days so  I don't really feel bad about moderate usage.    I can also compost paper which has less of an environmental impact than putting it in a landfill.    It's really the only thing I can do with our shredded documents.

Like others have said, the biggest thing everyone should be doing is making their recycling choices at the checkout line.     I try not to buy products with packaging if I don't have to (bulk bins with your own bags work great).    When I do buy packaging, I try to opt for glass or paper.   

Here's one thing I don't understand.    What's with the people I see at Costco every week that have cases of water in their carts?    One, the packaging is completely obnoxious from an environmental standpoint.    Two, wouldn't it be far cheaper to buy a klean canteen that you could pass down to your grandchildren and a Britta pitcher or other filtering system?    I even use mason jars when I can't find a water bottle at home.    You have the added bonus of making people think you're drinking moonshine at the playground.


kendallf

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Re: Is Recycling Good for the Environment?
« Reply #12 on: July 10, 2014, 10:27:04 AM »
I think there are fortunes to be made in the field of garbage separation; the day will come when all of those landfills are regarded as concentrated mines of valuable stuff.  Here's an interesting article about a company (MBA Polymers) doing plastic separation for reuse (not down-cycling as somebody mentioned above):

http://www.popsci.com/article/science/garbage-man


smalllife

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Re: Is Recycling Good for the Environment?
« Reply #13 on: July 10, 2014, 11:47:44 AM »
I think there are fortunes to be made in the field of garbage separation; the day will come when all of those landfills are regarded as concentrated mines of valuable stuff.  Here's an interesting article about a company (MBA Polymers) doing plastic separation for reuse (not down-cycling as somebody mentioned above):

http://www.popsci.com/article/science/garbage-man

Ooh I had always wondered when a company would figure that out!

greaper007

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Re: Is Recycling Good for the Environment?
« Reply #14 on: July 10, 2014, 01:39:14 PM »
I think there are fortunes to be made in the field of garbage separation; the day will come when all of those landfills are regarded as concentrated mines of valuable stuff.  Here's an interesting article about a company (MBA Polymers) doing plastic separation for reuse (not down-cycling as somebody mentioned above):

http://www.popsci.com/article/science/garbage-man

Interesting, I've heard about this as a side project in the developing world but didn't realize corporations were taking it up.

WranglerBowman

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Re: Is Recycling Good for the Environment?
« Reply #15 on: July 10, 2014, 01:47:34 PM »
It makes me sick to see how much people throw away, most of it is perfectly good stuff that could easily go to the Salvation Army or Goodwill and people could get a tax write off or even resell it.  I've been a dumpster diver since the day I was born, I think it's in my genes, or maybe a learned trait, not really sure, but my family has probably saved tens of thousands of dollars in the last couple decades reusing peoples trash.  Last week there was a push mower in the neighbors trash, that was going to be sent to the dump that looked perfectly new.  I had no choice but to save it.   A new spark plug, a little carb and choke cleaner, and I sold it on CL for $50, what kind of idiot throws away a perfectly good mower (I sound like Uncle Leo from Seinfeld).  I wish people were more educated, or not so lazy, and all this good trash got reused.  I take less than 2 cans of garbage a month the dump, while my neighbors each have 2 full cans twice a week.  When I talk to them about recycling they think I'm speaking an alien language or say "it's too difficult"...wtf.

You have the added bonus of making people think you're drinking moonshine at the playground.

Hilarious.  I ran long distance in college and used a mason jar full of water at a track meet once because that was the only container I could find while running out the door.  I won my race and after crossing the finish line was stumbling around trying to catch my breath and then puking.  I heard some of the meet officiants saying they had seen my drinking moonshine eairler...haha.


Cwadda

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Re: Is Recycling Good for the Environment?
« Reply #16 on: July 10, 2014, 02:12:06 PM »
Quote
good stuff that could easily go to the Salvation Army or Goodwill
I have a friend who worked at Goodwill though and he said the store has very shady practices.

I started donating things to Salvation Army after that.

GrayGhost

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Re: Is Recycling Good for the Environment?
« Reply #17 on: July 10, 2014, 02:33:17 PM »
What's with the people I see at Costco every week that have cases of water in their carts?    One, the packaging is completely obnoxious from an environmental standpoint.    Two, wouldn't it be far cheaper to buy a klean canteen that you could pass down to your grandchildren and a Britta pitcher or other filtering system?    I even use mason jars when I can't find a water bottle at home.    You have the added bonus of making people think you're drinking moonshine at the playground.

You're completely right about this. I bought a Klean Kanteen a few years ago, and it's still going strong. Plus I don't have to worry about ingesting minute amounts of plastic, day after day after day, since it's made of metal.

I think it's as you said, it's far more important to buy and use less stuff than it is to recycle.

theSchmett

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Re: Is Recycling Good for the Environment?
« Reply #18 on: July 10, 2014, 02:36:51 PM »
Yes.

MayDay

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Re: Is Recycling Good for the Environment?
« Reply #19 on: July 10, 2014, 03:16:47 PM »
My H has done lifecycle analysis for a company that has regular and recycled paper products. The recycled ones had a larger environmental footprint.

Another example is sugar cane paper. A local green store sells it, and I bought some. Then the hubs told me they burn the canes leftovers for the sugar processing, so if they are making paper with it instead, they now have to burn natural gas or something else.

Define larger environmental footprint. How is that weighed?

I can't tell you the exact parameters.  He did LCA for a loathe corporation that was basically trying to make sure they weren't going to get sued in twenty years for destroying the environment.  They weren't trying to make claims about how good or bad anything was for the environment.  But it's totally dependent on where you start and stop the analysis- you can get any answer you want.  In the example I gave, H felt the most reasonable conclusion was that the recycled product was worse for the environment.  He didn't (couldn't, anyway) share all the technical details with me. 

bogart

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Re: Is Recycling Good for the Environment?
« Reply #20 on: July 10, 2014, 04:17:22 PM »
Here's one thing I don't understand.    What's with the people I see at Costco every week that have cases of water in their carts?    One, the packaging is completely obnoxious from an environmental standpoint.    Two, wouldn't it be far cheaper to buy a klean canteen that you could pass down to your grandchildren and a Britta pitcher or other filtering system?    I even use mason jars when I can't find a water bottle at home.    You have the added bonus of making people think you're drinking moonshine at the playground.

I know that in the area where I live many wells are contaminated by arsenic, which is found in the groundwater naturally due to the prevalence of shale.  Filtration systems to get it out are expensive to install and maintain, from what I understand (I'm on city water, so don't know lots about what's involved), so some of the folks you are seeing may be making sensible decisions for their health within the context of constrained (real or perceived) options.  Of course, I'm sure some are just buying bottled water out of habit or based on misinformation.

greaper007

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Re: Is Recycling Good for the Environment?
« Reply #21 on: July 10, 2014, 04:24:22 PM »
Here's one thing I don't understand.    What's with the people I see at Costco every week that have cases of water in their carts?    One, the packaging is completely obnoxious from an environmental standpoint.    Two, wouldn't it be far cheaper to buy a klean canteen that you could pass down to your grandchildren and a Britta pitcher or other filtering system?    I even use mason jars when I can't find a water bottle at home.    You have the added bonus of making people think you're drinking moonshine at the playground.

I know that in the area where I live many wells are contaminated by arsenic, which is found in the groundwater naturally due to the prevalence of shale.  Filtration systems to get it out are expensive to install and maintain, from what I understand (I'm on city water, so don't know lots about what's involved), so some of the folks you are seeing may be making sensible decisions for their health within the context of constrained (real or perceived) options.  Of course, I'm sure some are just buying bottled water out of habit or based on misinformation.

Ok, I'd probably still be purchasing the water from a bulk machine in a reusable container just to avoid the packaging (and I'm sure it's cheaper).     Also, this is in the middle of the suburbs, I don't think anyone around here has a well.

zinnie

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Re: Is Recycling Good for the Environment?
« Reply #22 on: July 10, 2014, 04:37:48 PM »
I think there are fortunes to be made in the field of garbage separation; the day will come when all of those landfills are regarded as concentrated mines of valuable stuff.  Here's an interesting article about a company (MBA Polymers) doing plastic separation for reuse (not down-cycling as somebody mentioned above):

http://www.popsci.com/article/science/garbage-man

Thanks for sharing--it is refreshing to see something like this! I particularly liked the explanation at the end of how they separate different types of plastics.