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Eco Etiquette: Is Recycling Bad For The Environment?

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I have been hearing reports that recycling is bad. That the costs of shipping, mostly the carbon emissions from them, counteract any benefit from recycling. Is this true?

-Daniel

Do you know why myths like this gain traction? Because they're so completely contrary to common sense that they wind up getting publicity for their "wow" factor. Like a Prius harming the environment more than an SUV. Or a public health care option leading to death panels for the elderly.

After all the progress we've made implementing curbside recycling programs from sea to shining sea, passing mandatory e-waste recycling laws in 19 states, and convincing even mainstream companies like Reynolds to create products from reclaimed materials, the last thing we need is for people to start tossing everything in the trash.

But why would this be so bad, you ask? While I personally call up the image of heaps of gross garbage mummified for 1,000 years in a landfill as my motivation to recycle everything down to the tags on a new pair of underwear, you might be interested to know that the issue of dwindling landfill space is not the primary reason recycling is so important. This is a big country, and we could conceivably construct more landfills were it not for the strict environmental regulations (thankfully) preventing one from popping up in your backyard.

You asked specifically about the carbon emissions re recycling transportation, and there's been a lot of publicity about the global warming effect of both carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. But as it turns out, there are even more powerful greenhouse gases to curtail, like methane, which is 20 times more effective than CO2 in trapping heat in the atmosphere, over a 100-year period. Guess what the largest human-related source of methane is in the US? Yup: landfills. Recycling -- and especially, composting, since methane is produced by the decomposition of organic materials (food scraps, lawn clippings, paper) in an anaerobic environment (a closed landfill) -- helps reduce these emissions.

Talking about the benefits of recycling is like peeling an onion: There are so many, and they are so intertwined, that it would be near impossible for me to explain them all in one measly blog post. But let me briefly highlight a few more:

Energy. In 2005, recycling saved 900 trillion BTUs, equal to the annual energy use of 9 million households. This, in turn, combats global warming, since lower energy needs = less demand on fossil fuel power plants.

Pollution. For every ton of aluminum that is mined, another ton of toxic chemicals is left behind to contaminate water supplies. Make foil and soda cans from recycled materials, and you eliminate this type of pollution. And it's not just aluminum: Producing paper from recycled pulp versus virgin fiber emits 95 percent less air pollution; manufacturing glass from recycled materials generates 20 percent less air pollution.

Natural resources. If every US household swapped out just one four-pack of traditional bath tissue (made from virgin fiber) for the recycled version, it would save approximately 1 million trees a year. This links back to emissions, since forests are our first line of defense in absorbing all that CO2.

Economy. Recycling and remanufacturing industries account for close to 1 million manufacturing jobs and more than $100 billion in annual revenue. Current unemployment rate: 9.5 percent. 'Nuff said.

Still, as with most lies, there is a hint of truth to your question. While clearly, recycling is a better alternative than just throwing stuff away, it is, by far, the least efficient way to lessen our impact on the earth. It's worth noting that Recycle is the last of the three R's of the environment. More important, Reduce: Eco-friendly shopping is still shopping. Every purchase you make has its cost to the planet, whether that cost is the carbon emissions released to ship the item to the store, or the product's eventual destiny in a landfill (not everything can be recycled forever). Then, Reuse: Using a Kleen Kanteen for years will always require less energy and resources than recycling a single-use plastic bottle. So don't bash that blue bin!

Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at eco.etiquette@gmail.com. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

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