Letter: Why recycling is still worthwhile
June 7, 2016
At the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, we've received calls from individuals questioning the efficacy of recycling. Since this is a complicated topic, we decided to clarify some points and trash any misinformation.
One of the primary misconceptions is that all recyclables go to China. This is incorrect. Some do, but many are processed in the states — even in Colorado. The Comprehensive Waste Diversion Plan for Pitkin County outlines the markets for common recyclables. While plastics No. 1, No. 2 and PET do go to China, there are markets for steel, amber-colored glass and HDPHE plastic here in Colorado, and our food and yard waste can be composted right here in Pitkin and Garfield counties. Cardboard can be recycled in New Mexico, and newspaper can be recycled on the West Coast.
In order for an aluminum can to be reincarnated into its next container, it must travel from where it was consumed to a processing facility, a distribution center, a store and the next consumer's location. For our rural community, our recycled goods must travel a long distance. Admittedly, transportation generates greenhouse-gas emissions, but do those emissions completely negate the environmental benefit of recycling?
There are many considerations when comparing the impact of recycled goods with products made from virgin materials, but overall, collecting, processing and transporting recycled materials almost always uses less energy than extracting, refining, transporting and processing raw materials. According to a study by the University of Massachusetts, manufacturing products from virgin materials uses on average 17 times more energy than manufacturing products from recycled materials.
A Pitkin County waste-diversion study found that 38,200 tons of municipal solid waste are sent to the Pitkin County landfill each year. Fifty-three percent of that could be diverted through recycling or composting. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 1 ton of recyclables prevents 2.13 tons of carbon dioxide emissions. If the items that could be diverted were, it would prevent 43,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year, equivalent to the annual energy use of about 4,500 homes.
While it is unrealistic to assume that the community could divert 100 percent of our waste, waste diversion should be acknowledged as an important strategy for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, and it is something that our community can easily improve upon.
Beyond carbon emissions, recycling is important for natural-resource conservation. Using recycled material instead of virgin material reduces the need for mining or logging, conserves resources and protects natural habitat. In addition, recycling keeps materials out of landfills and incinerators, where they can contaminate groundwater and contribute to air pollution.
For these reasons, we agree with Cathy Hall, the Pitkin County landfill manager, who stated in a column on May 31 that "waste diversion is worth it." Recycling and composting are important for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, protecting our air and water, and preventing the extraction of Earth's finite resources. To learn what you can and can't recycle at home, consult your waste hauler or visit http://www.wastefreeroaringfork.org.