Does recycling have a negative environmental impact?

Most people are well aware that recycling has certain benefits. In fact, it’s touted as one of the most important duties of an environmentally-responsible citizen.

Rod Proto · 12 Dec 2019

Most people are well aware that recycling has certain benefits. In fact, it’s touted as one of the most important duties of an environmentally-responsible citizen. It’s certainly true that by many measurements, recycling reduces overall energy consumption, pollution, landfill waste, and resource depletion.

However, there are some negatives associated with recycling, leading many experts to wonder whether the practice is truly worthwhile. Here are some of the issues with recycling, and how they impact attitudes toward it as a waste management solution:

Recycled products typically have short lifespans

A local burger chain in my area has its employees wear recycled shirts that read, “I used to be a bottle” on the back of them. It’s a really neat idea, but it leads someone with experience in waste management to wonder how many more of those shirts will need to be produced in the long run, as opposed to apparel made out of a sturdier material. The same question applies to many kinds of recycled-material products.

It’s expensive

A recycling program is more expensive for municipalities than you might expect. Is it worth it? Possibly. But just because something is financially viable in the long term doesn’t mean it’s affordable in the first place. Setting up and carrying out the recycling process is not cheap; systems need to be created for waste pickup, storage, and processing. Unfortunately, this contributes to the fact that recycling really isn’t as widespread as we’d like to imagine.

It’s not as friendly as you might think

Recycling reduces some forms of pollution but causes massive amounts of others. Contaminated recyclables can also be a vehicle for toxic substances to travel from one product to another, and there are unpredictable side effects in some cases as well — like buildings made from recycled steel causing the gamma poisoning of people who work in them.

The problem of plastic

More than any other material, plastic is responsible for ecological crises and waste management challenges around the world. Whether due to prohibitive costs or inefficient methods available, most plastics (even those make it into the recycling bin) just end up in landfills.

The bottom line

Recycling is a clever concept. However, there’s perhaps more hype around it than the actual process has been able to deliver on so far. We shouldn’t discount it as a waste management technique, but at the same time ought to take responsibility for its limitations. Like landfills and burn sites, recycling facilities are another way we try to hide our waste; but the truth is something that can’t — and shouldn’t — be hidden. getting facts out into the open is the clear path toward creating better solutions, and that’s an idea we should be happy to recycle over and over again.

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