New This Month

Recycling Basics

Body+Soul, July/August 2007

Ever wonder if recycling is worth the effort? After all, in the face of melting ice caps and epic hurricanes, it's hard to see how a few less cans in the landfill will amount to environmental salvation. In fact, we're recycling more now than ever before, and yet problems like shrinking forests, dwindling oil reserves, and climate change persist. Can the simple act of tossing a bottle in a blue bin really add up to anything significant for the planet?

We turned to environmentalists and experts on the inside tracks of recycling and waste-and crunched a lot of numbers-to find out. Bottom line: Recycling has everything to do with climate protection. The process reduces heat-trapping emissions at every stage-and there's no better time than the present to step up the effort. For many of us, recycling is an event that ends at the curb. But as you'll find out, that's just the beginning.

Q: Does recycling really save resources?

A: Yes. Consider aluminum: Recycling a six-pack of aluminum cans saves enough energy to power a TV set for up to 18 hours or a 100-watt bulb for as long as 24. If we recycled the 50 billion aluminum cans that we dumped in land­fills last year, we could have saved the energy equivalent of 15 million barrels of crude oil. In all, a can made with recycled aluminum requires 95 percent less energy than one made entirely from virgin materials.

Other common recyclables offer similarly worthy savings. Recycled steel (like the kind used to make many soup cans) requires 60 percent less energy to produce than new material. Recycled newspaper and glass each offer 40 percent energy savings, while plastic saves 70 percent. But there's more to it than energy: Each of these products begins as raw material usually gathered from mines, oil fields, and monoculture tree plantations (which lack the life-sustaining biodiversity of the natural forests they often replace). By recycling, you reduce demand for those resources and limit support for wasteful and polluting industries.

Of course, that's not to say that recycling doesn't entail its own pollution and energy use. The best approach, say members of the growing Zero Waste movement, a grassroots effort to raise producer stewardship and turn waste management into resource management, lies in rethinking our all-consuming habits. "Recycling of any resource is good," says Larry Chalfan, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Zero Waste Alliance. "But it doesn't erase the impact of acquiring, processing, and shipping the raw materials to create that product in the first place." To make your efforts complete, Chalfan recommends thinking about the whole life cycle of your purchases. That means not only recycling, but purchasing items made with recyclable, post-consumer recycled, and simply fewer materials. It's a "cradle-to-cradle" mind-set-the green design principle that says at the end of a product's useful life it should follow nature's model and provide nourishment for something new-that's already taking hold in places around the world. From Oakland, California, to Canberra, Australia, many cities have resolved to achieve zero waste within the next 15 years by encouraging (and sometimes mandating) more thoughtful design, boosting recycling rates, and making composting more accessible, among other initiatives. "We'll never be perfect," admits Chalfan, "but we can get so close, it's definitely worth trying."

Q: Do all recycled goods become new products?

A: As long as you abide by local guidelines, nearly all of the recyclables you leave at the curb for pickup (upwards of 90 percent, by some estimates) will find new life in some form. Newsprint may not return in the Sunday paper, but it might help make lower-grade products like egg cartons or cardboard cereal boxes. A plastic bottle may not hold another gallon of milk, but it might show up in goggles or carpet, keeping it from the landfill for one more life cycle. Aluminum cans, on the other hand, are often recycled ad infinitum. They could also go into auto parts or cookware.

As for the small amount of material that doesn't get recycled, it's usually because it didn't meet local criteria. To maximize the usefulness of items in your bin, sort carefully and resist the urge to dump something in because you don't know what else to do with it. "If you're going to make new paper, plastic, or metal products, you want clean source materials," explains Robert Reed, director of corporate communications for NorCal Waste Systems, one of the most aggressive recyclers in the country. "You don't want pieces of molded plastic in the bales of recycled paper you allow in." What about those occasional reports of solid waste out­fits secretly dumping recyclables into their company-owned landfills? According to Brian Taylor, editor of Recycling Today, a trade publication that tracks industry trends, such cases are rare and "blatantly in violation of city contracts."

Q: Does the "chasing arrow" symbol mean you can recycle the product?

A: The recycling symbol tells you nothing on its own. But it usually accompanies information about the material used to make that particular product. With paper, the arrows often come with a statement of how much recycled and post-consumer recycled paper went into the new sheet. With plastic containers, you'll see a number in the chasing arrows; your community may use this to tell you what is okay to include in your recycling bin (for example, "We accept plastics #1, 2, and 5"). In general, when the local recycler contracted by your city or town can find a lucrative and reliable market for a certain plastic, it collects it-and the more, the better. If not, it will ask you to put that material out with the trash. For more information, contact your neighborhood's recycler (look under "Recycling Centers" in your Yellow Pages) or visit the Web site (enter your city and state or zip code for local details and contact information).

Q: What's the difference between recycled and post-consumer recycled?

A: Post-consumer recycled materials have completed their life cycle as consumer goods and would have become waste if they hadn't been recovered for use in this new product, explains Darby Hoover, senior resource specialist for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Otherwise, recycled content probably comes from manufacturing scraps that were never destined for a landfill or incinerator to begin with. This "pre-consumer" material should certainly be recycled, says Hoover, "but it provides fewer benefits in terms of supporting municipal recycling programs."

When shopping, choose products with higher amounts of post-consumer recycled materials. In doing so, you will help divert materials from landfills, reduce demand for virgin materials, support local collection programs, and "close the loop" on the items you put to the curb. You can find post-consumer recycled content in everything from shoes and pencils to laundry detergent and trash bags.

Q: Are we running out of landfill space?

A: No. Although the number of landfills in the United States dropped from 8,000 in 1988 to 1,654 in 2005, capacity has remained fairly constant because today's landfills are much larger. They do pose plenty of environmental problems, though. Municipal solid waste landfills, where more than half of our refuse ends up, make up the largest source of human-related emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas and potent factor in global warming. Ton for ton, methane gas traps 21 times as much heat as carbon dioxide. Other escaping gases contribute to smog and air pollution, and former landfills account for one out of every five of the more than 1,500 sites prioritized for hazardous waste cleanup under the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund program. In short, landfills do no favors for our health or the environment; we should divert as much material from them as possible.

Q: In the big picture, can changes in private households really make a difference?

A: Yes. "Consumers, by their sheer force of numbers, have a huge impact on the environment," says Rob Wallace, vice president of communications for Keep America Beautiful, a nonprofit organization that promotes community cleanup projects and consumer responsibility. According to the EPA, an average family of four that recycles plastics waste alone can save the equivalent of nearly 340 pounds of carbon emissions per year just by preventing emissions associated with the extraction and processing of oil and natural gas for virgin materials. Recycle a year's worth of Sunday papers, and you save more than 270 pounds of emissions. Become more mindful of what you buy in the first place, and the resulting effects can be profound. Says Hoover of the NRDC: "Being conscious about what we buy and how we dispose of unwanted materials has a positive ripple effect that reaches far beyond a single household or individual."

Q: Where can we go from this point?

A: After spectacular climbs during the 1990s, recycling rates have lingered between 30 and 35 percent of late-and some critics see no problem with that. Rates have more than tripled since 1980, they say, so why bother to do more? "You'd think we're winning the waste war," says Stanford University garbologist William Rathje, Ph.D., who pioneered the archaeological study of contemporary garbage. But while recycling rates have climbed, so has the amount of waste. In 1995, Americans generated about 208 million tons of it; 10 years later, we generated 246 million tons, an increase of more than 18 percent. This was a slight drop from 2004, but part of a dangerously steep upward trend. Rathje calls this phenomenon "the percentage paradox." "People who recycle tend to feel that they've done their part, so they can buy whatever they want," he explains. "So we're buying and using and throwing away more and more stuff, and doing that faster than we're increasing recycling."In short, there's no reason we couldn't be doing more. According to EPA estimates, as much as 75 percent of our trash could be recycled. The Curbside Value Partnership, a national consortium of curbside recycling programs sponsored in part by the Aluminum Association, reports that twice as many households could participate in curbside recycling programs with existing technology and infrastructure. With those numbers, we could prevent greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to taking more than 75 million cars off the road. Getting there will take a little diligence, starting with careful sorting, avoiding excess packaging, and choosing durable goods over disposable ones. "The fact that recycling rates have leveled off after a period of substantial growth isn't necessarily a bad thing," says Wallace of Keep America Beautiful. "It indicates a massive and successful consumer movement in recent years" -- and shows how much room we have to grow.

Q: Does recycling "pay for itself?"

A: "This is a nuanced question," says Natural Resources Defense Council senior resource specialist Darby Hoover, because when you compare the costs of different disposal options, it's an apples-to-oranges endeavor. "In terms of avoided resource use, recycling more than pays for itself," says Hoover. But when it comes to a city's bottom line, you also have to consider factors such as varying landfill and hauling costs. For manufacturers, virgin materials often bear lower price tags than recycled ones -- but not because they're cheap to produce. Rather, waste seems frugal largely because of subsidies and tax breaks for oil and timber companies. Even so, studies show that well-managed recycling programs with high participation rates create more jobs and generate more revenue than other disposal options. So while curbside recycling began primarily as a good-hearted effort to preserve the planet, today's programs are as much about buying, selling, and trading resources as they are about conserving them.

New York City illustrated this new paradigm in the early 2000s when it attempted to cut costs by suspending some recycling services. The move failed to produce savings (and generated no small amount of protest), and the city eventually adopted an improved system that's expected to bolster municipal coffers by up to $20 million. How? Recycling diverts valuable metals, minerals, and fibers back to the stream of commerce where they are subject to supply and demand. As a result, revenue from much-desired materials (especially aluminum) helps cover the cost of processing less marketable ones, such as glass. Rising energy prices also boost the value of recyclables. The more energy costs, the more manufacturers stand to save by using recycled materials, which can generally be processed into new goods with less energy than virgin materials. Nationwide, the recycling and reuse industry is worth more than $235 billion in annual revenue.

By contrast, landfill and incinerator operations thrive by turning resources into waste -- at the cost of municipalities. "Most business managers now realize that if their operations generate marketable scrap they are much better off selling that material to a paper mill, plastics compounder, or metals smelter
than paying to have a garbage company pick it up," says Brian Taylor, editor of "Recycling Today", a trade publication that tracks industry trends. Much of the municipal sector -- which includes curbside pickup programs -- is following suit. However, most cities remain years away from breaking even because recycling rates remain low. Over time, as the tonnage going to costly landfills decreases and recycling collection expenses are offset by reduced garbage-collection costs, community recycling investments should begin to pay off.

Q: Should recycling be considered an environmental success story?

A: Not yet. In a society that throws away about 80 percent of products after a single use, it's dangerous to think of recycling as a cure-all for our environmental woes. "We have a system in which, to a large extent, people who design a product don't think much about the end of its life," says Larry Chalfan, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Zero Waste Alliance. As a result, garbage is part and parcel to everything we buy. And regardless of whether we burn, bury, or recycle, a majority of our discards cause ecological destruction.

Paper recycling, for example, can create toxic sludge as a byproduct of ink removal. But if manufacturers were held responsible for the disposal of their products (as they are in Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, and other forward-thinking places around the world), they might replace petrochemical-based inks with environmentally benign alternatives.

Recycling 101
While recycling programs vary from city to city, a few rules hold true for most curbside collection programs. To find out about your local regulations or learn how to start a recycling program in your building, neighborhood, or city, visit

Hazardous Waste
This group includes household products that have corrosive, toxic, ignitable, or reactive ingredients, such as rodent poisons, paints, batteries, electronics, cleaners, fluorescent lightbulbs, and thermometers.

Do Read product labels for disposal information.

Do Follow the "reduce-reuse-recycle" hierarchy. Reduce the amount of hazardous waste in your home, and use up as much as possible. Donate leftovers (find out where at As a last resort, arrange for disposal through community collection programs (call 1-800-CLEANUP or your local solid waste agency for dates and locations).

Do Participate in take-back and trade-in programs for batteries, computers, cartridges, and some electronics. See company Web sites for instructions.

Don't Pour hazardous waste down the drain, storm sewer, or in your yard.

Don't Put electronics out with your trash or recycling. Learn about the impact of "e-waste" and how you can help at

Do Recycle all aluminum cans. (If you're not certain if a can is aluminum, test it with a refrigerator magnet. Aluminum isn't magnetic.)

Do Rinse out tin cans (the kind that soup and pet food come in) before putting them in your bin. You don't need to remove labels, but if they're paper and come off easily, recycle them.Do Find out if your program accepts clean aluminum foil.

Do Remove plastic caps from metal containers and recycle them separately.

Do Check to see if your program accepts empty aluminum

Do Rinse out containers before recycling.

Do Look beyond the number. Although pro­ducts may have the same number, they may not all be recyclable. For example, #2 bottles may be acceptable but not #2 wide-mouthed tubs. Check local rules to find out what's okay.

Do Find out if your program requires removal of plastic bottle caps, which are often a different type of plastic. When in doubt, remove the cap and throw it away.

Don't Mix plastic bags, film wrap, or molded plastic with your recyclables. Put film wrap in the garbage and recycle bags at a local supermarket. Donate usable products, such as chairs and kids' toys, made with molded plastic.

Do Check local guide­lines to see which colors of glass (green/blue, brown, clear) jars and bottles you can recycle.

Do Remove caps, lids, and corks from jars and bottles.

Do Rinse out glass containers.

Don't Put ceramics, heat-resistant ovenware (such as Pyrex and CorningWare), mirrors, windows, lightbulbs, drinking glasses, garden pots, or broken container glass (bottles and jars) into the mix.

Don't Drive 50 miles to recycle a few bottles. If you don't have curbside pickup, find a local collection facility or buy-back center (often located at supermarkets).

Do Keep it clean and dry. For many programs, a greasy pizza box or damp paper towels can render a whole bin useless. Limit moisture by putting recycling out on collection day, rather than the night before.

Do Flatten cardboard.

Do Recycle junk mail, including envelopes with plastic windows, unless local guidelines specify not to.

Do Recycle magazines after removing all samples and non-paper inserts.

Don't Throw in wax paper, Styrofoam, or heavily soiled paper (like oil-soaked fast-food wrappers).

Don't Bundle papers together with tape, wire, plastic, or rope. If local guidelines allow bundling, use lightweight string.

Did You Know?
The first recycling center in the United States opened in 1896 in New York City.

The first citywide curbside collection program began in University City, Missouri, in 1974.

In 2000, the Environmental Protection Agency established a link between global warming and waste management, showing that waste reduction and recycling help stop climate change.

Americans go through nearly 100 million plastic bottles every day and recycle roughly 25 percent of them.

Recycling a six-pack of aluminum cans saves enough energy to power a television for up to 18 hours or a 100-watt bulb for as long as 24 hours. If you throw away two cans instead of recycling them, it wastes the energy equivalent to a 12-ounce can full of gasoline.

The average fee for dumping a ton of waste into a landfill ranges from $14 in California to $73 in Massachusetts.

Incinerating 10,000 tons of waste creates one job. Burying that amount in a landfill creates six jobs, and recycling it creates 36 jobs.

In a survey of Americans with access to curbside recycling, the Curbside Value Partnership, an industry-funded consortium of communities with curbside recycling, found that baby boomers report the highest recycling rates, with 80 percent saying they always recycle. Young adults report the lowest, with only 45 percent saying they always recycle and 15 percent saying they never do.

Paper constitutes more than 30 percent of the waste generated in the United States.

The chasing-arrow symbol represents the three stages of recycling: collection, processing, and reuse. A student designed it in 1970 for a contest sponsored by cardboard-box manufacturer Container Corporation of America.

Read On
Want more dirt on waste and recycling? Wade through the mysteries and histories of our discards with these fresh reads.

"Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash", by Elizabeth Royte
"Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage", by Heather Rogers
"Recycle: The Essential Guide", edited by Duncan McCorquodale and Cigalle Hanaor
"Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage", by William Rathje and Cullen Murphy

Text by Josie Garthwaite

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