Renewing the cycle


Courtesy Wikipedia Commons


By John Frederick

As the ultimate manipulators of the earth’s environment, it’s easy for industrialized societies to forget that our planet’s ecosystems have thrived for eons because of nature’s intricate system of recycling. Ecosystems thrive when they are diverse, resource-rich environments that operate within their own carrying capacity, recycling their assets rather than wasting them. In nature, nothing is wasted—everything that grows eventually decomposes, and that “waste” ultimately becomes food that sustains the life of other living things.

Unfortunately, humans have broken this “waste equals sustenance” cycle. Large volumes of waste and a proliferation of synthetic materials are the by-products of our industrial age. A good deal of this waste is not easily broken down and some of its hazardous elements leach into our soil and water table. Even much of our organic waste, which could easily be composted into fertilizer, is instead added to the toxic stew that packs our landfills.

Twenty years ago we were forced to acknowledge our waste problem when a now infamous garbage barge traveled 6,000-miles in a futile search for a place to dump 3,186 tons of Long Island trash. The upside of this highly publicized incident was a political and behavioral shift that gave rise to unprecedented public support and resulted in legislative mandates for recycling and widespread curbside collection programs. In Pennsylvania, ten million residents now recycle at least some of their trash, which makes recycling more popular than voting and the most common act of environmental stewardship. Still, even in municipalities with curbside pickup, not everyone chooses to recycle their waste. Perhaps this is because the benefits are not immediately obvious and the costs are often exaggerated. 

The Benefits

Last year, the transformation of waste materials back into useable raw materials in Pennsylvania:

  • Prevented 1.9 million metric tons of greenhouse gases being emitted into the atmosphere—the equivalent of emissions from more than 200 million gallons of gas.
  • Reduced solid waste collection and disposal costs. Four additional mega-landfills would have been required to handle the amount of waste that we recycled in 2006, saving our state $250 million of landfill disposal costs last year alone.
  • Provided more than 80,000 people with jobs and offered significant savings for manufacturers. In 2006, our state’s recycled materials were worth more than $100 million.

Despite these well-documented benefits, recycling has its critics. But as shown in the Recycling Facts and Fallacies chart on page XX, the arguments against recycling simply don’t hold up. Economic studies by the Northeast Recycling Council and the National Recycling Coalition have clearly shown that sound environmental practices result in economic benefits. In addition, municipalities that recycle benefit from less illegal dumping, open burning, and urban blight. All this may explain why so many communities have committed to recycling. Although only the 450 largest municipalities in the state are required by law to provide curbside recycling and collect yard waste, more than 400 others have voluntarily implemented curbside recycling programs. In addition, numerous rural communities and counties now offer drop-off recycling centers. Moreover, while the law only mandates recycling three of the following materials—plastic bottles, newspaper, magazines/catalogs, cardboard, aluminum cans, steel cans, and three colors of glass bottles and jars—the vast majority of these communities require residents to recycle more than required.

Many commercial establishments in mandated communities also recycle more than required. In addition to the aluminum cans, office paper, and corrugated cardboard they are required by law to recycle, many businesses also collect the full range of materials recycled by residents. Some businesses and industries have even found homes for less traditional materials, such as toner cartridges, mixed grades of paper and packaging wastes, which significantly decrease their waste disposal costs as well as their environmental footprint.

The Challenges

Although we have made great strides since 1987’s notorious barge trip, we are still far from being a zero-waste society. Despite the good results, good science, and good intentions, the majority of our marketable recyclables still end up in landfills. That’s because many communities are simply not performing as well as they should or could. Like other environmental stewardship efforts, the success of recycling often reflects the attitude and commitment of the communities involved. Far too many municipalities, residents, and businesses still throw recyclable materials in the trash. In addition, recycling is not available in many areas of the state and there is confusion over what exactly is recyclable and how that waste should be prepared. If your community or workplace is not up to speed on recycling, politely let the powers-that-be know that it’s time they implemented a recycling program.

Cardboard, catalogs and junk mail, plastic bottles, aluminum cans, and glass jars quickly fill our recycling bins. That’s why once we begin recycling, we inevitably become aware of the amount of waste we produce. On the heels of this awareness comes a subtle shift in attitude. In the end, recycling transforms us from consumers into conservers—and teaches us that like the rest of the natural world, we must recycle if we are to sustain the web of life.

Recycling Facts and Fallacies

Fallacy: Landfills are an innocuous and inexpensive answer to dealing with trash.

Fact: Although landfills may be the only way to dispose of things that cannot be recycled, they will forever be a liability to nearby communities and future generations. Beyond the odors and truck traffic generated today, methane (a potent greenhouse gas) and toxic liquid leachate will persist decades after the last bag of trash is delivered. 

Fallacy: We’re not running out of resources.

Fact: Metals, minerals, virgin forests, and the petroleum used to make plastics are all finite resources. The extraction of minerals and sand to make metals and glass also produces extraordinary amounts of waste rock, which often impacts water quality in the process. Though a renewable resource, even the cutting of timber for paper pulp contributes to soil erosion, stream sedimentation, and habitat degradation.

Metal and paper manufacturers have long used recovered commodities, which saves them money because it conserves a great deal of energy. Steel and aluminum mills use large quantities of recycled material.  In the last decade, most new paper making capacity has utilized recycled fiber technologies because the industry recognizes the value and benefits of using recovered materials.

Fallacy: Recycling collection is a waste of energy.

Fact: Since recycled materials have already been refined and processed once, manufacturing the second time around is a cleaner process and uses much less energy.  In the United States, recycling saves enough energy to produce electricity for nine million households.

Fallacy:  Recycling is expensive. 

Fact: Curbside recycling service costs less than $3.00 per month per household in most Pennsylvania communities.  It seldom costs more than waste collection and disposal. But only looking at the cost of collection ignores one of recycling’s unexpected benefits. 

Recycling is actually a positive economic force that adds value to a commodity. Rather than burying them in a landfill, used commodities like plastic bottles and newspapers have spawned an industry that employs 81,000 people with a $2.9 billion payroll in Pennsylvania alone. Recycling is also responsible for $18 billion in sales and more than $300 million in tax receipts. Recycling more than 20 million tons of commodities has saved at least $800 million in disposal costs since 1990.

Fallacy: There is plenty of space for landfills.

Fact: This may be true in a state as large Pennsylvania but there are bigger questions.  Landfills are not a desirable land use and homeowners and communities are hardly enthralled to have them located nearby. Nor do they welcome the additional truck traffic.

Fallacy: Recycling is a burden that has been forced on Americans by environmental extremists.

Fact: Not only is recycling extremely popular among Pennsylvanians, it has support from a wide spectrum of the political rainbow.  When the Pennsylvania General Assembly approved continued funding for recycling in Pennsylvania last year, the bill received broad bipartisan support.  The final votes in both chambers were unanimous.

And industry has embraced recycling and waste reduction with even greater enthusiasm.  Most industries have learned that in addition to lower disposal bills, less waste means more efficient operations.  Both have a positive impact on the bottom line.

John Frederick is Executive Director of the Professional Recyclers of Pennsylvania (PROP) and has been a member of the Sierra Club since 1974.  For more information about how you implement or improve a recycling program in your community or place of work see

Published November 2007