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Thinking Through Recycling Myths

Aug 17, 2007
Recycling is one of the things people think of first when they think about being environmentally friendly. In some ways that's a pity, as reduce and reuse really should come first, but recycling is nonetheless important, and one of the easiest for the government to encourage both individuals and businesses to do.

Recycling has improved greatly these past several years, but it's still not great. Far more could be recycled, especially when it comes to paper. It is still easier in many areas to throw paper in the regular trash, whether you're at home, work or out and about.

Myths about recycling abound, as many people don't really think carefully about it.

One is that recycling is hard. This one really depends on where you live. Where I live it is ridiculously easy for the materials that are accepted. One bin, no sorting required. Other places require sorting, but do provide the bins. It's not that common anymore for recycling to be difficult.

Some also claim that recycling takes up just as much energy as using new materials.

How close this comes to being true depends on the product. Glass and metal recycle fairly easily. Plastic is more difficult. In fact, recycled plastic generally costs more than virgin plastic.

Plastics in general can be truly confusing. Which can easily be recycled depends upon the area you live in. Where I live, only #1 and #2 plastics are accepted for recycling. Other places accept a much broader range. I truly wish we had such a program here, but we do have to work with what we have in a given area.

Recycling in general costs money, often more than merely dumping the trash. Really this should not come as a surprise; there's more effort involved. But it appears that it may not be as cost ineffective as some have claimed.

Then there are the claims that there is plenty of landfill space. This is combined with the idea that recycling is expensive, wasteful and ineffective to make the point that recycling is nothing more than a green myth itself.

So how available is landfill space?

I'm not going to mess with the claims that all we need is a single landfill x square miles in area and however many feet deep. That's just not practical. Rather, I will look at how we are doing currently in terms of landfill space and over the next few years. To do this, one must also consider location. It is far easier to find landfill space in some areas than it is in others. The East Coast in particular has this difficulty.

Privatization has helped the landfill space issue tremendously. It's not in the crunch it once was. And many places have years and years left in their landfills. But they are not infinite.

And then there's how you make a landfill. The land used in landfills could be left natural or used for other purposes. I cannot think of any benefits to not trying to fill them more slowly. As landfill space becomes more scarce, the costs of using them go up. It won't always be relatively cheap to throw out garbage.

Some also assume that biodegradable means that it will break down within a reasonable time. This doesn't work in your typical landfill, where everything quickly gets covered up and decomposes in an anaerobic process. Most biodegradable items need air to really break down, and produce methane as they do.

Best thing to do with truly biodegradable items is to use them in your own composting. You can have the control over them so that they will break down into something reusable. You will want to be certain that you are using things that will be friendly to your garden, of course.
About the Author
Stephanie Foster blogs at Green SAHM about being an environmentally minded stay at home mom. She offers more tips for being green around your home at http://www.greensahm.com/category/home-and-family/
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