Myths about Recycling

Five myths about recycling

April 20

Brian Clark Howard is a senior digital writer and editor covering the environment at National Geographic.

Compressed aluminium cans that are ready for recycling are seen at the Neuf-Brisach Constellium aluminium products company’s production unit in Biesheim, Eastern France, April 9, 2018. (Vincent Kessler/Reuters)

From the kitchen table to the editorial pages, people have been debating the merits of recycling for decades. Does it really save energy and money? Can I recycle that yogurt cup or juice box? At the same time, recycling technology and global markets have evolved quickly, leaving some consumers confused or stuck in old, outdated ways. A lot of myths persist about those blue bins. Here are some of the most common.

Myth No. 1

Recycling uses more energy than making something new.

This myth has been kicking around for decades. Daniel K. Benjamin, a senior fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center, recently told Big Think, “In most cities across the nation, recycling of household trash is, in fact, wasteful, even when we take into account the meager environmental benefits of such recycling.” And as Leland Teschler of Machine Design put it , “Save energy: Don’t recycle.”

But according to the Environmental Protection Agency, recycling aluminum cans saves 95 percent of the energy needed to make new ones from raw materials. Recycling steel and tin cans saves 60 to 74 percent , recycling paper saves about 60 percent, and recycling plastic and glass saves about one-third of the energy compared with making those products from virgin materials. The energy saved from recycling one glass bottle will operate a 100-watt light bulb for four hours.

During the historic California drought a few years ago, some people asked if they should stop recycling in order to save water. Yet an analysis by the website Treehugger confirmed that more water is saved by processing recycled materials than by making new stuff.

Myth No. 2

Items must be meticulously sorted for recycling.

When recycling was a relatively novel concept, many waste haulers insisted on strict sorting rules. As collection and recycling machinery evolved, many of those rules changed. Confusion abounds: Can I recycle an envelope with a plastic window? Do I have to remove staples from paper? In my Washington apartment building, neighbors have posted conflicting signs about whether glass must be sorted by color or if plastic bags are accepted.

In general, people don’t need to sort their recyclables to anywhere near the degree they used to. More communities are now using “single stream” systems, in which people are encouraged to place all their recyclables into one container. Cleaner materials reduce odors and speed the process, but the recycling steps involve washing, shredding and crushing the material, and then often melting it. Food residue and impurities like paper clips are burned off or collected through magnets and other means. Items made from multiple types of materials, like juice cartons, can be more difficult to recycle, but each facility handles such materials based on its own equipment and needs. Right now, more than 60 percent of U.S. households have access to carton recycling, and product manufacturers have been working on making packaging that is easier to recycle.

Myth No. 3

Products made from recycled content are lower quality.

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