The chief alternative to recycling one’s household waste is to throw it in the garbage and let the municipal trash disposal professionals get rid of it. This will, usually, mean that it ends up in a landfill. But this in itself is not new information – mostly we already knew that. The question we need to address in order to decide if we want to recycle is “what happens in the landfill?”. Is it a wise choice for our trash disposal needs?
The idea is that, when placed in landfill, the substances we throw away will biodegrade – that is, they will decompose and eventually form part of the soil. Up to a point, this is true, but one reason why people are favoring recycling is that our landfills are very quickly filling up. Not only does this mean that we are throwing away more than is decomposing, but it also means that the landfills become very tightly packed – thus not allowing oxygen – a vital part of efficient biodegrading – to get through.
A recent study took a look at various landfills and the rubbish that was found on lower levels of the compacted garbage. Some of what was found included fruit, veg and meat that was over a quarter of a century old and still recognizable. Newspapers were found from the 1950s which were still readable. In order for the process of biodegrading to be truly effective, more space would be needed -–something that we aren’t going to get if we keep piling recyclable garbage on top of what is already in landfills.
It seems these days that no issue can be in front of the public for much longer than a couple of days without becoming politicized. When a celebrity is caught up in a scandal, is it the politicians’ fault for letting moral standards slip? When a company goes bust, could the politicians have prevented it by taxing them less, or subsidising them at a key point? It is no surprise, then, that for many people the environment and recycling have become a political issue.
There are some senses in which partisan considerations drive one’s views on the environment. Recycling programs cost money to create, and need to be done at a municipal level. This means that they will be funded from taxes, and someone who makes tax a primary concern may well argue that they are being taxed for no good reason.
On the other hand, recycling does have an impact on the environment, and the environment is one thing which is very clearly communal – we need to share the world with other people. So if we are polluting, we aren’t doing our best by our fellow people. Recycling is also a social issue.
There are political parties in most countries set up with the environment as a primary concern. Although they certainly have policies in all the other areas, they will be pigeonholed as being solely concerned with the environment, and one side will accuse them of being socialists while the other calls them conservatives. It is sometimes better to divorce the political aspect from your environmental attitudes, because it seems to be a distraction as much as anything.
As time goes on and the opposing sides in the global warming debate become more entrenched, it becomes expected of you that you will pick a side. While one side will accuse you of killing the planet, the other will accuse you of aiding and abetting a scam which is designed to empty our pockets and serve the interests of a sinister green lobby. It is hardly surprising that many people simply choose to conscientiously object. But let’s say we agree that global warming is man-made. How can recycling prevent it from getting worse?
Well, when we create the materials that recycling is most concerned with – paper, plastic, glass and others – this process is done in the main by burning fossil fuels. Natural gas, coal, oil and gasoline are all required in part to drive this process. When we burn fossil fuels, carbon dioxide is released into the environment and it is believed that carbon dioxide is one of the major contributors to global warming.
Put simply, recycling materials takes less energy than creating them from scratch, as they have already been through the major change required to create them. This means that we don’t need to use as many fossil fuels, and we stand less chance of contributing in any way to global warming.
It is easy to see why some people would have their doubts about global warming – that it is happening at all, and that it is being created by humans. However, the scientific consensus certainly leans towards global warming being man-made, and given that recycling is cost-effective, it makes sense to hedge your bets.
The importance of recycling materials when we are finished with them has for some time now been a message that people are keen to get out there. But for those of us who have come to the debate at this late stage, one could be forgiven for thinking it was a purely political argument. Why are we talking about recycling at all?
Certain materials – not least paper and plastic – cannot be made from scratch without using materials that we take out of our planet. Taking these materials can affect the planet in many undesirable ways and, equally concerning, they are neither self-replenishing nor possible to manufacture.
That means once they are gone, they’re gone. When someone talks of non-renewable resources, they mean things like the petroleum required to make plastic, or the trees required to make paper from scratch. You can replant trees – but you’ll have noticed they take a while to grow – but you can’t put petroleum back.
Once you have taken those resources out of the earth, that’s not the end of the deal. The process of turning them into something else – petroleum into plastic – takes a process that costs money and requires a lot of energy, which in itself will often come from non-renewable sources.
The cycle of creating these materials from scratch, then, adds up to a false economy which will always leave the planet poorer. Without even mentioning the controversial topic of global warming, it is instantly clear just how recycling has become so necessary, and such a burning issue.
The environmental issues which take up a lot of media space in this day and age have become surprisingly controversial in a short space of time. Barely a day goes by without someone claiming that the entire concept of environmental friendliness and green living is simply an excuse to tax us more, make us feel guilty and keep us from enjoying ourselves. This makes it difficult to give out a message of environmental positivity, because it is all too likely that the person listening to the message will reject it and accuse you of being a zealot.
Let’s be clear about this. Recycling household waste when you are finished with it is not the action of a zealot. It is common sense. It saves you money for a start, and in more ways than the immediate. Here are some simple facts:
When you recycle an item for future use around the house, it’s one more thing you don’t have to buy.
When you recycle goods by separating your garbage into recyclable and non-recyclable, you drive down the cost to the taxpayer of garbage disposal.
When you buy products made from recycled material, you are supporting an industry which is more cost-effective than creating those materials from scratch.
Now, as much as people might claim that recycling is something for an obsessive green activist, one can agree that those three facts are true, and positive arguments for recycling. Isn’t that something worth sticking up for? Whenever anyone tells you that recycling makes no difference, let those three facts be your response.
One of the most successful schemes of anti-environmentalists is to portray the people who have concerns for the environment as being part of some kind of cult. The idea is that by doing this, it is possible to make everything an environmentalist says seem like some kind of apocalyptic vision. It is even more sophisticated than that, though, because we will often hear of the green movement pouring “propaganda” into the ears of unwitting children. When those kind of charges are flying around you can rest assured that mud will stick.
Nonetheless, it is not indoctrination to tell your child about the benefits of recycling. After all, these benefits are something that they will profit from later on in life, as they get older. If there is more done to ensure that the world is a cleaner, greener place to live, then there will be less threat to people’s health and lives. Whether or not you believe in global warming as a man-made phenomenon, there are very definite threats in our environment – of which pollution is a major one, and an issue which can be combated by recycling.
On the other end of the scale, even though older people will no longer be here when the children are in their old age, there is no reason why people who are advanced in years should feel that they have nothing to give to or gain from paying attention to green issues. One inevitably comes to think of leaving a legacy, and helping to bequeath a cleaner earth is just one small part of why an older person should recycle. The financial benefits of recycling are clear to everyone, including the person recycling – and not least of all the reasons, by recycling you can set a good example.
Plastic shopping bags are controversial. Now, a couple of decades ago this is a sentence one wouldn’t have imagined typing or reading, but today, the issue of plastic shopping bags is one which raises a lot of hackles. One of the major issues is that when disposed of, plastic bags take centuries to decompose. Even when they do decompose, they release toxins into the soil and water where they lie, and more often they will present a choking hazard to marine life. This is all the more disturbing given the huge number of plastic bags distributed over the course of a year.
The “Bag For Life” is a relatively new innovation that has caught on in many countries. Like the old style, flimsy plastic bags that will hold shopping for long enough to get it from the store to your house, they are made of plastic – however, they are a lot stronger and have bigger capacity, and can be re-used as often as you like. Eventually, they may fray and come apart – but most supermarkets will take them and give a new one for free, before disposing of the old one safely.
In recent years it has become more common to see fabric bags on sale in supermarkets. These have an additional advantage over plastic bags in that they are considerably stronger and more durable, can be cleaned and are usually a lot easier on the eye, too. These bags are made from naturally-occurring materials, which as a result means that they do not require costly and damaging manufacturing processes.
There is a lot of very emotive language used in the debate over recycling – as indeed there is over any environmental issue. One side will accuse the other of being too lazy and selfish to recycle, and the other will accuse the first of being guilt-tripped and gullible for falling for something that basically gives them a clear conscience for a short spell of time. The question does need to be asked; are we lazy and selfish? Are we easily guilt-tripped? Or should both sides calm down and get on with our lives?
It may not be selfish laziness that prevents people from recycling, but there is probably more that everyone could do to avoid the very real and tangible problems that are caused by a lack of recycling. It cannot be denied that recycling saves a lot in terms of the energy that goes into manufacturing, as well as the money that that energy costs to make and the resources – many of which are natural and exhaustible – which are required for the process.
Is it idealistic, naïve and bone-headed to argue the case for recycling? Some people might say it is, but when you look at the facts it makes a lot of sense to prepare for a future when we cannot rely on non-renewable forms of energy, by making sure that we use the alternatives as far as is practical in this day and age. If it takes a little bit longer to separate the garbage, what is that when set against the likely far greater expense of paying for repairs on the fly?
Our Addiction To Disposable
We as human beings have an alarming tendency to just throw things away when we’re finished with them. When you think about it, this tendency is a little big pig-headed. We can easily afford to keep disposing of things, can’t we? So what is the problem? Well, when you think about it, the problem is that things don’t just magically disappear when they aren’t being used. When we throw things in the trash, they end up in a landfill decomposing, usually quite slowly.
There is a fairly common response to this, and it is to ignore it. Many people have an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude to waste disposal. If we can’t see it, it is not there, right? Except it is. And although it may sound like the desperate cries of a hippy, we do only have one planet and we just cannot keep throwing stuff away and burying it when we’re finished with it. Garbage doesn’t decompose in the blink of an eye, and much of what we throw away will take hundreds of years to biodegrade. When you think of the rate at which we throw things away, that adds up to a headache.
So why do we keep throwing our garbage away? Some of it, it’s fair to say, cannot be recycled, but what about the rest? The plastic bottles could be recycled, the paper could be recycled and so could many of the gadgets we just throw away. We dispose of that stuff because it is easier. What kind of sense does that make?
If you had said half a century ago that one of the greatest threats to our environment over the next century would come from plastic bags, you would have been laughed at and told to stop smoking whatever it was you were smoking. Yet these days, people are coming to that conclusion. It is a little known fact that, even in a country which often uses paper bags where others use plastic, Americans throw away a startling 100 billion plastic bags every year. Of those, estimates as to how many are recycled range between one and three per cent.
Now, the humble plastic bag may seem innocuous. However, consider that every year thousands of birds and marine mammals are killed through choking or strangulation by plastic bags. That is a fact – as is the information that plastic bags are not biodegradable, and can take a millennium to break down (and even when they do, they pollute the soil and water in which they lie. Then consider the fact that the production of plastic bags requires the use of incredible amounts of petroleum – a scarce natural resource.
If you get plastic bags when you do your grocery shopping, or any other shopping for that matter, think about whether you need to throw them away. Is there a chance that they could be better used to wrap packed lunches, serve as household storage, or be used to carry other things around – like books to college? If not, they can certainly be recycled. It is much better to do any of these things than to throw them away.
Although there is a compelling amount of evidence that most of what the environmental scientists have been telling us for years is true, there is no shortage of skepticism around the major environmental issues facing us. There are plenty of people who have made their refusal to recycle into a political stance. Not only do they not wish to recycle, they wish to pull the rug from under anyone who does. They argue that it actually takes more energy to recycle than it does to dispose of recyclable garbage in a landfill. Do they have a point?
The answer, increasingly, is no. The city of New York, early in this millennium, did once find that the municipal recycling programs were actually losing money instead of saving it, and closed down the programs. Shortly thereafter, they found that landfill space was at a premium and they had to pay for out-of-state landfill. Then they reinstated their recycling programs, having found that they were able to do it in a more cost-efficient manner. It may once have cost a lot of money and required a lot of energy, but as time has passed, recycling has become more efficient.
The truth is that, even if we were to accept that it was inefficient to recycle in the first instance (it is not), the process of recycling takes a lot of the pressure off of manufacturing industries, which have to spend a lot of money to make the materials from scratch. A larger cost up front, if that were the case (and it is not), at least saved the expense further along the line. As this becomes more widely accepted, the skeptics will find they have fewer and fewer allies.