Most local authorities provide residents with containers in which they can sort and recycle their waste, as well as regularly collecting the recyclable material. It doesn’t take much effort to sort our waste into separate piles, and recycling seems a perfectly sensible thing to do in a world of finite resources. There are still some, however, who question the value of recycling and claim that it is neither economically or materially worth it.
Recycling Is Garbage?
The idea that recycling is useless or even counterproductive was perhaps most notoriously expressed in a 1996 New York Times article by journalist John Tierney. Entitled ‘Why Recycling Is Garbage’, Tierney’s article made various arguments against recycling – including the assertion that it is simply an “expensive gesture”, that the world is not running out of landfill space in which to bury rubbish, and that the saving of scarce resources by recycling is a myth.
Tierney’s article understandably provoked a strong reaction, but a discussion about the economics of recycling is especially relevant in today’s grim financial climate of recession and budget cuts.
There are undoubtedly many costs involved in recycling. Collecting, sorting, and processing all those glass bottles, aluminium cans, plastic packaging and even Christmas cards does not come for free, or even cheaply – but does it make sense economically?
It very much depends on local factors such as the cost of containers, crews and frequency of collection, and whether homeowners must sort recyclables themselves, or they are sorted later at a processing centre. Economic viability is also largely dependent upon the price the recycling company or government can get for the collected recyclables – if revenue generated exceeds cost of collection, the programs are at the least self-financing, if not profitable.
If we focus solely on the economics, we of course miss the point that recycling saves natural resources and energy, which is beneficial to the environment. When waste is simply buried in the ground at a landfill site, harmful chemicals and greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane are produced, polluting the natural environment and contributing to global warming.
The manufacture of products using recycled rather than new materials also results in lower CO2 emissions. It has been estimated that making glass by using recycled materials, for example, creates 300kg less CO2 per tonne than it does when using raw materials. This is due to the fact virgin glass requires calcification, created using a carbon-intensive furnace.
Deforestation to meet demand for paper supply can also affect the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, because trees soak up CO2 and release oxygen. Cut down trees and there will be more CO2. In his infamous article, Tierney argued that paper is a sustainable natural resource and so recycling does not actually save trees. We are growing at least as many trees as we cut down, he said. Whilst this may be true, it doesn’t take into account the fact that paper recycling reduces the pressure to turn natural forests into tree farms. Tree farms do not provide the same kind of habitats for animals as natural forests, and so they do not support biodiversity.
The answer to the title question is therefore quite clear. Yes, recycling is definitely environmentally worth it; and it can also be economically worth it, when effective programs and strategies are implemented and maintained.