21 Recycling Pros and Cons

Recycling is defined as the separation, and then collection, of materials that would be considered waste, but can be processed and remanufactured into new products. Those products could then be used again and then follow the same process. With a recycling program implemented, paper, cans, bottles, and more can be turned into new products that can be used once again.

The primary advantage that recycling programs provide is a reduction of waste that would normally be sent to a landfill. Because the average US citizen produces about 4 pounds of garbage every day, the amount of energy that is saved through this waste reduction can produce massive amounts of energy. Recycling just 1 aluminum can provides enough power to run a television set for up to 3 hours.

The disadvantage of recycling is that energy is still required to reuse items. Although raw materials are not consumed as often with a recycling program in place, it is more effective from an energy standpoint to consume or use fewer items than it is to recycle the items that are consumed at current levels.

Here are some more recycling pros and cons to discuss.

List of the Pros of Recycling

1. Recycling can be profitable when properly implemented.
For the average curbside program in the United States, a properly implemented program can generate up to $94 of new revenue per bin that is collected. Simple marketing programs to encourage participation and increase recycling volume and cart request at the same time. In Baton Rouge, LA, a marketing effort increased cart requests by 40%, volume by over 16%, and press coverage of the program has limited initial expenditures.

2. Programs reduce the risk of localized soil contamination.
Plastic bottles can release DEHA has they break down, which is a known carcinogen. Metals and glass can create sharps hazards when not disposed of properly. Inks from paper can add to soil contamination. With an effective recycling program, these exposures can be reduced so that local soils can remain healthy.

3. Recycling reduces fossil fuel consumption.
For most products, it takes more raw fossil fuels to create new products than it does to turn already used items into something that can be reused. Although new plastic manufacturing can be less expensive than recycling when oil prices are low, the amount of fuel that is consumed through recycling is less. Recycling requires water and energy to prepare existing plastics.

4. It can reduce the pollution potential of a community.
Fuel consumption can produce environmental emissions. Although fuels are consumed to make recycling programs work, the amount that is required is often less than manufacturing a new product. When additional benefits, such as landfill waste reduction, are added into the equation, an effective recycling program can greatly reduce the pollution potential of every community.

5. Virtually every recycled product requires less energy to produce than a new product.
Some products are more energy-efficient than others from a recycling standpoint. Aluminum requires 96% less energy to make from recycled cans than it does to make it from boxite. On the other end of the spectrum, recycled glass products are only 21% more energy-efficient than raw materials. Recycled plastic bottles require 76% less energy and recycled newsprint requires 45% less energy.

6. Recycled products don’t need to stay in a closed-loop system.
The most efficient method of recycling is to employ a closed-loop system. That means a glass bottle gets turned into another glass bottle or a tin can is used again as a tin can. Recycled products can also be changed into new products in an entirely different category. Many soda bottles, which are made from PET, become recycled polyester fibers for carpets and clothing.

7. Recycling programs are based on technology, so they are constantly improving.
An example of this is the recycling program that is currently available in San Francisco. Residents who participate in this curbside program and throw any rigid plastics into the same bin. The local facility automatically sorts all products. It’s a $10 million investment, but when Madison, WI converted to a similar facility, the annual cost increase was just $3 per household.

8. It reduces raw material consumption.
According to statistics provided by the University of Southern Indiana, for every 1 ton of recycled paper, 17 trees do not need to be harvested. Additional environmental benefits include saving 380 gallons of oil from being consumed, reserving 3 cubic yards of landfill space, and 7,000 gallons of water. In total, 60 pounds of air pollution are removed by recycling 2,000 pounds of paper.

9. Recycling can include organic materials.
The focus of recycling programs is to get paper and plastics out of landfills and used as other products, but recycling can involve organic compounds as well. In the United States, the average person will throw out over a half-ton of organic garbage that will make its way to the landfill. Composting programs can take on many of these items, from grass clippings to leftover foods, reducing the space requirements that are needed for local landfills.

10. It creates educational opportunities.
Even when recycling programs are not operating at full efficiency, they are providing communities with added benefits. Building an awareness from recycling is just as important as the process of recycling. It is especially important for a high-waste generation country like the United States. The average person in the US generates more than 1,600 pounds of waste per year. That means the US produces 40% of the world’s waste, while having about 5% of the world’s total population. Knowing what happens in landfills and why recycling can be beneficial can help future generations obtain even more benefits from recycling programs.

11. It stops contamination issues.
If a single quart of motor oil is not properly recycled, it can contaminate up to 2 million gallons of fresh water. Many toxic items do not wear out, but they can be refined or processed so they are used again.

List of the Cons of Recycling

1. Not every recycling program can recycle everything.
Automatic recycling programs have improved the efficiency of collection systems. Although everything in theory can be recycled, many programs will only accept #1 PETE plastic food or beverage containers and #2 natural plastic jugs or bottles. Cardboard, paper, newspaper, aluminum, and tin are often included. All other plastics, even when labeled for recycling, are not listed as being recyclable. That means a lot of needless waste still heads to landfills.

2. Compliance with recycling programs can be limited.
Recycling program compliance was much easier when sorting had to be completed by the participant. Now that most recycling programs are automated, many people dump non-compliant items into the recycling bin, thinking that it can be recycled. Not all paper, glassware, or even plastic is recyclable. Food-contaminated items cannot be recycled. That means compliance can be limited for curbside programs, even when participants think they are being compliant.

3. Many recycling programs generate lots of trash.
Automated programs have their limits. Let’s say someone throws out a whole bag of shredded paper with their cans and bottles into the curbside pickup. What happens next? There’s a good chance that all that stuff is going to the landfill. Trying to sort small scraps of paper from other recycling products is difficult for automated programs and impossible for individuals. Although it is offered with good intentions, many people create more trash than they realize because of a lack of knowledge about their recycling system.

4. Recycling can be profitable, but it isn’t a cost-efficient waste management solution.
In the United States, landfill space is often cheaper than the cost of recycling. When looking at the total cost, per ton, of processing waste in the average US community, recycling costs are about $100 more per ton than simply dumping the waste into a landfill. For a community that is struggling financially, the monetary returns don’t make up enough of the disposal costs, so everything gets dumped into a landfill for a lack of profitability.

5. Recycling workers face toxic exposures.
Even with automated catch-all curbside programs in place, recycling workers are still placed into a position where they must sort garbage, remove toxins, and be exposed to potentially hazardous products every day. An NIH study in 1999 found that workers in sorting facilities are exposed to higher levels of airborne microbial agents and this created immunological reactions more frequently compared to workers in other career fields.

6. Recycling programs can still create litter.
If you’ve ever followed behind a recycling truck for a curbside program, then you’ve seen the amount of litter that can be created. Even if just one can misses the truck per house, that can leave thousands of cans littering the streets of a community every day. Many treat recycling programs as a service, but it works better when it is a system where participants and collectors work with one another to maximize the potential benefits that can be achieved.

7. Not every product goes through an environmentally-friendly recycling process.
For paper to be recycled, bleaching is often required to be part of the process. Aluminum cans go through a re-melt process that removes the ink and coating from the metal so it can be used once again. A single ingot of recycled aluminum contains the metal from 1.6 million beverage cans. That’s a lot of ink and metal coating product that could leech into the environment as well.

8. It requires a capital investment to start a recycling program.
Some communities don’t start recycling programs because the costs of doing so are too high. Even when the costs of a program are properly managed, like they are in Cartersville, GA, which started a recycling program in 2012, they can still be high. The community raised residential and commercial refuse collection fees by $2 per month to fund the program.

9. Profits are still based on supply and demand.
According to Popular Mechanics, the price per ton of mixed recyclables in the Pacific Northwest was just $33 in 1994. By 1995, the price had risen to $170. Then, in 1996, the price went back down to $40. The supply and demand of the recycling market is quite volatile and that makes it difficult for investors to get involved with the startup of new programs.

10. It is a technology that still needs improvements.
The demands for recycling increase when the cost of raw materials rises. The demands decrease when the cost of raw materials falls. In a market-based society, recycling is only emphasized when it tends to be the most cost-effective solution for waste management that is available. Future innovations may help to make recycling be competitive with raw material processing, but today’s programs suffer because of the costs involved. Many may see recycling as the right thing to do, but because it’s too expensive, they choose not to participate.

These recycling pros and cons show us that a properly implemented program can put less stress on the environment, make communities some money, and save our energy resources. The key to beginning such a program is to invest into modern technologies, encourage participation, and educate for compliance. By doing this, the negatives of recycling can be reduced so that we can all benefit from what recycling can provide.

Blog Post Author Credentials
Louise Gaille is the author of this post. She received her B.A. in Economics from the University of Washington. In addition to being a seasoned writer, Louise has almost a decade of experience in Banking and Finance. If you have any suggestions on how to make this post better, then go here to contact our team.