Recycling is a process which allows us to reclaim materials which were already used for a specific purpose so that we can use them again for other needs. Once an item becomes a waste product, programs that encourage this behavior can divert millions of tons of plastics, metals, and other items away from out landfills. Then we can use them repetitively to limit the harvesting of virgin materials.
The list of items that we can recycle is numerous and continues to grow every year. Any plastic bottles or containers that you would find in the kitchen qualify for most recycling programs. Paper and cardboard items like cereal boxes, phonebooks, magazines, office paper, and newspaper can also be turned into new products. Put your aluminum, steel, and tin cans into their appropriate bins. Glass bottles and food containers will usually qualify too.
What you can’t recycle in most recycling programs are loose plastic bags, polystyrene egg cartons (you can recycle the cardboard ones though), drinking cups, Styrofoam, and any broken or sharp glass.
Once you have sorted out the items that you wish to recycle, then there are three general rules to follow to ensure that you stay in compliance with your local program.
- Keep your items relatively clean, removing any food particles before including the items.
- Do not mix in any plastic bags with the rest of your recycled items because this will reduce or eliminate any value to the other items.
- Avoid including items that are coated in soaps, detergents, or similar items that won’t clean up otherwise.
Then you are ready to review the biggest advantages and disadvantages of recycling.
List of the Biggest Advantages of Recycling
1. It can reduce contamination issues in our landfills.
Plastics, metals, and glass qualify for recycling programs most often, but there are specialty providers who will take other spent products as well. If you have particular paints, varnishes, motor oil, or chemicals that are no longer usable, then recycling these items can reduce the toxicity that occurs if it gets dumped into local landfills. Toxic items can still break down naturally in the environment, but the time it takes to do so can be significantly longer than other waste products.
2. Recycling can also divert waste products into other recovery streams.
A recycling program does not need to be operating at 100% efficiency to create a benefit for the environment. In the larger metropolitan centers where high population concentrations create a lot of waste to manage, even diverting half of what a person generates can save nearly half of a ton from the landfill. The United States is per capita the worst waste creator in the world today, with each person responsible for over 1,600 pounds of it each year. With a 50% diversion rate through a modern recycling program, almost 800 pounds of reusable products could return to the market one day.
3. Organic materials qualify for recycling programs as well.
The Environmental Protection Agency offers a six-tier food recovery hierarchy that places composting on the fifth level. “Even when all actions have been taken to use your wasted food, certain inedible parts will still remain and can be turned into compost to feel and nourish the soil,” the EPA says with regards to food waste scraps and yard waste. “Composting these wastes creates a product that can be used to help improve soils, grow the next generation of crops, and improve water quality.”
When organic waste goes to the landfill instead, the decomposition process can produce high levels of methane that can be problematic for the atmosphere. The composting process that will recycle these waste items can significantly reduce the emissions. Compost can even capture and destroy 99.6% of industrial-grade volatile organic chemicals in contaminated air.
4. Recycling programs can reduce raw material consumption dramatically.
It might cost more to start recycling additional products, but this action will also help us to save energy. Recycled produces require less processing (in most circumstances) to turn them into usable materials compared to the use of raw materials. The actual amount that we can save depends on the materials in question.
When we recycle glass products that are not broken or sharp, then the amount of energy we save is about 15% since smelting must occur again. If we recycle aluminum, then we can save up to 94% of the energy we would have used otherwise to create something from the metal. Even recycling plastic bottles can reduce our energy usage levels by more than 75%.
5. We are consistently improving the recycling technologies we’re using.
Scientific advances are making it easier than ever to recycle numerous products. Americans are already restoring sending 6.3 billion pounds of plastics to programs across the country each year. New sorting technologies can automatically identify when grade and type of plastic is sent to a recycler that speeds up the process of the work to reduce landfill content. We can add a new polymer to both polyethylene and polypropylene that creates a tough new plastic that is very easy to recycle a second time. Advanced systems can even take the wrappers off of plastic bottles to improve the quality of the materials without damaging any equipment.
6. It can work with open-loop and closed-loop systems.
Recycling programs can focus on two outcomes when usable products are available: open-loop or closed-loop systems. An open-loop emphasis allows products to transform into something completely different than what they were used for in the first place. Turning a plastic bottle into a garbage bag is one such example of this option. With this technology, we can even turn ocean plastics into clothing.
Closed-loop systems take the used product to create something that is exactly the same as a reusable item. If you turn in a bag of aluminum cans with this type of recycling program, then you would get to use them again as cans for other products.
7. Recycling programs can reduce the pollution levels in a community.
A single recycling program can reduce the number of air pollutants in a community by more than 70%. It can also reduce water pollution levels by up to 35%. When using recycled steel for manufacturing needs, up to 76% of the water pollutants generated locally can disappear, along with 97% of the mining wastes which exist. The reality of the modern landfill system is that they are a potential ticking time bomb. They could be producing unknown chemicals or gases that could cause tremendous damage to the local atmosphere if they were to be released. By recycling, we can proactively reduce the threat of their impact.
8. We consume fewer fossil fuels when we focus on recycling.
75% of the waste that Americans generate each year is recyclable. Many of the consumer goods that we simply discard can be reused instead. Simple habit changes can make a big difference in the amount of fossil fuels we consume each year – and they count as recycling! Did you know that using fabric shopping bags at the grocery store can eliminate about a dozen plastic bags from being used? Reusable glass cups and plates reduce the amount of plastics needed for everyday use, which further reduces our consumption.
9. Whole products can be donated to recycling programs for future use.
You can help to reduce the use of fossil fuels and needless landfill waste by donating working products to local thrift stores. Lights, fans, microwaves, and clothing that you no longer wear can go to charities like Goodwill instead of being managed by the local waste system. You’ll be helping other families in the community too because they can receive a steep discount on a household item that they might need.
The added benefit of donating working products is that it can reduce the levels of DHEA that are sometimes released to the local environment. You can avoid broken glass or sharp metals. This advantage all comes together to improve the quality of our soil and the atmosphere to ensure that our planet is around for many more generations.
10. There is still the potential for profitability in recycling programs.
Communities are holding onto their recycling programs in the United States because a well-managed system can generate a lot of revenue. Although China’s shift in accepting recyclables as shifted this advantage some in recent years, it is still possible to create new revenues of up to $90 per bin, per year. For a city the size of Seattle, that means there is the potential to manage over 283,000 bins. Multiply that at the per capita rate and there is a significant money source just sitting there to be used.
11. Recycling programs create educational opportunities at the local level.
When we create educational programs that work with our recycling efforts, then the compliance levels in each community begins to rise. Informing households of how they can limit the amount of waste they generate helps future generations improve their recycling efforts. Even if a program is not profitability initially, it can start finding new revenues through simple marketing and outreach efforts.
List of the Biggest Disadvantages of Recycling
1. It is usually more expensive to recycle items than it is to throw them into a landfill.
Statistics published by Credit Donkey note that one of the reasons why communities aren’t recycling is because of the actual cost of doing so. “Surprisingly enough, it is more expensive to recycle than to fill a landfill,” Kim P. writes for the site. “It costs around $28 per ton to throw trash in the landfill. The cost to recycle is around $147 a ton.” Since China is no longer accepting mixed recyclables as they once did, communities are changing, reducing, or eliminating their recycling programs because they can’t afford to keep them.
2. Some communities struggle with compliance problems in their recycling programs.
Many households want to recycle, so they throw in items that they hope are in compliance with their local program. Some people may not even know what the rules for item inclusion are at the curb. According to Chaz Miller, President of Miller and Associates, the use of recycling programs involves more politics than it does realism. Only 35% of processed materials have a positive commodity value today, with the primary revenue generators being old corrugated containers and metals. Throwing in plastic items which are not recyclable in the local program only creates more waste.
3. The items which qualify for recycling can be different in each community.
When you look at a plastic bottle, container, or item, then you will see the recycling symbol printed somewhere on it with a number. The chasing arrows triangle helps you to see if the product you are holding will qualify for the local program, if the plastic is recyclable, or if the item is even reusable. Most curbside programs accept anything with the numbers 1 or 2 printed on them, which are PETE and HDPE respectively.
Outside of those numbers, 3-7 have variable levels of compliance. You will need to check with your local administrators to determine if you can recycle it. Only 35% of HDPE in the United States is recycled each year, even with its qualification as a common item.
4. Small contaminants can create big problems for recycling programs.
Any contaminant in a recycling container can spoil the entire batch that a community processes each week. That is why there are specific rules given to every household when a curbside recycling program is available. Some common contaminants include items which still have food waste on them, plastic bags or items made from a similar material (like Ziploc bags, bubble wrap, or trash bags), and loose shredded paper.
Most communities will have you place your shredded paper in a clear container so that it can be recycled correctly. Different rules may apply for glass and newspaper as well. Then remember to peel off the labels of your beverage bottles whenever possible.
5. Recycling programs usually depend on the financial health of the community.
Because landfill management is usually cheaper than a recycling program, the cost of running a curbside program is often the first expense eliminated from a tight budget. When some communities are spending $100 per household to fund a recycling program in its early years, the amount of savings that are possible by stopping the work is understandable. That means we typically recycle only when it is financially convenient for us to so, which can cause some small towns to never start a program like this one.
6. It is work that can put people into dangerous situations.
There are numerous toxins that curbside workers face every day when working with a recycling program. People in this position receive more exposure to bodily fluids, airborne microbial agents, chemicals, and toxins each day than the average person may receive in a full year. Every pickup or sorting action creates the possibility of a health problem because no one knows what a bin contains until they start working with it.
Processing facilities face similar challenges. Respirators are often required because of the pollutive particles that may be present indoors.
7. Some people don’t care about whether they recycle or not.
“If American’s recycling system is ever going to live up to its purpose and potential, we will have to make use of top-down planning solutions from outside the market,” writes Jeff Spross for The Week. It is not unusual for the recycling bin in the average home to become a secondary garbage can. There are no thoughts about being in compliance with the program unless there are legal requirements to do so.
Not all of the blame falls on homeowners either. Waste Management was issued a $43,000 fine for recycling violations in 2017 for their actions in New Jersey for failing to properly handle collections. Cleveland issues violators fines of $100 for improper curbside waste and recycling. Richmond, California, is taking a similar action, billing consumers for contamination in their bins of various amounts. Michelle Perrin told ABC7 in 2018 that she received a fee of $26.60 for violating the rules without even knowing what they did wrong.
8. Strangers can access a household’s bins when they are curbside.
One of the most significant disadvantages to the American recycling programs that operate curbside is that they typically need to go out the night before. Early morning collection requirements make it possible for people to access the containers overnight, potentially placing items in the bin which do not meet the program’s compliance needs. That puts the individuals who are responsible for the bin into a position where they either pay more because of non-compliance or must take their items to a local center. Since both solutions are costly, people in this situation often say that they’ll just stop recycling altogether.
9. Recycling collectors can generate a lot of litter during the collection process.
Most communities use waste management trucks that use a hydraulic arm to lift the container as it dumps the recycling waste into the vehicle. Even when the work is spot-on perfect, a wet or sticky item can fall out before or after the lifting process, creating litter in the neighborhood. Bins which are not correctly closed can result in the same problem. We can end up creating a bigger issue for ourselves because of simple mistakes that are entirely preventable. It takes all of us to pick up after ourselves (and after each collection) to ensure that our world stays clean for the future.
10. The processes of recycling are not always environmentally friendly.
Because we create branding, logos, and bright colors to encourage consumerism, many of the products that we can recycle tend to have inks that must be removed before the item is reusable. When aluminum cans go through this process, the metal goes through a smelting process that removes the foreign objects from it. Bleaching is sometimes necessary to disinfect products before they enter the manufacturing and production cycle once again. There are times when it may be safer and more effective to process the items in different ways to prevent damage from happening to the environment.
11. There is a significant cost to pay when starting a recycling program.
The EPA estimates that the first month of a recycling business that operates smoothly will cost up to $30,000. You will then have that expense to pay every additional month as well minus the one-time equipment expenses. This capital investment often needs outside backers to help a community start a program when one doesn’t exist yet. There are several grants available through the Small Business Innovation Research Program that can help to cut expenses as well. Local programs like CalRecycle administer local options too, such as a tire grant or oil recycling program, with the goal to be a diversion of waste from the landfill disposal process.
The biggest advantages and disadvantages of recycling can help us to promote a cleaner, safer environment for future generations while saving time, money, and energy when creating new goods. We must eliminate the confusion that exists in each community about what can go into the blue bins and what must stay out. Although there are some that are resorting to fines as a way to encourage compliance, education tends to work better. Unless China decides to reverse their policies on strict product sorting before acceptance, expect the struggles to continue for the foreseeable future.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.