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My city, like many, has a recycling program, which I believe is supposed to reduce pollution and create some positive economic activity. But I've heard many people argue that recycling programs are a waste in and of themselves. Essentially that most recycling programs are having the opposite effect than they were intended to have. Not only are they bad for the economy, they are also bad for the environment.

Recycling on Conservapedia contends:

Critics dispute the net economic and environmental benefits of recycling over its costs, and suggest that proponents of recycling often make matters worse and suffer from confirmation bias. Specifically, critics argue that the costs and energy used in collection and transportation detract from (and outweigh) the costs and energy saved in the production process;

Are critics of recycling correct?

Do recycling programs usually have a net negative effect on the environment and the economy?

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I am actually banned from Conservapedia and don't know why! –  Sklivvz Apr 8 '11 at 22:41
@Sklivvz: Aren't we all? –  Borror0 Apr 8 '11 at 23:17
Not Mark, apparently :-) –  Sklivvz Apr 8 '11 at 23:29
it depends whats being recycled. Recycling paper is,imho, not worth the effort. we farm trees for paper. recycling gold or copper is probably a net gain. –  justin cress Apr 9 '11 at 5:58
I think the terms and context need to be more clearly defined to be very productive. What if it is sub-optimal in efficiency/effectiveness now, but not in the future, for some X in Y? (Where x and y are neighborhoods, cities, companies, high-rises, schools, etc.). What if it will become a net positive only if money is spent on refining technologies (based on market forces?) based on widespread but suboptimal programs? And/or if habits must be reinforced over a decade or more for some necessary rate of recycling adoption, to ensure a net positive (according to whatever defined parameters)? –  jgbelacqua Apr 10 '11 at 5:26
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2 Answers

up vote 29 down vote accepted

According to Popular Mechanics, who I assume probably did their homework, it's worthwhile recycling newspaper and a couple of types of plastic in addition to aluminum (that aluminum recycling is wise should be utterly uncontroversial--aluminum refining is amazing, but not a low-energy process!). There was an article in the Economist a few years ago that also supports the idea that recycling (at least of most things) is a net win (it also adds steel to the "good idea" category). Even if you assume that not all factors have been taken into account (e.g. carbon produced by people working at the recycling plant who otherwise could do something else productive), the fraction of energy saved and large amounts of CO2 saved strongly suggest that recycling is a net positive.

Whether any individual recycling program is worthwhile is harder to judge, but see the article in The Economist for a suggestion of an affirmative answer (actually, an answer of "usually", 83% net positive).

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Right, and we have to remember that the purpose of recycling is to conserve resources, not to save energy even though sometimes it does. –  Gabriel Fair Feb 9 '12 at 19:41
@GabrielFair - Energy and resources are pretty interconvertible in most cases. Some things are sufficiently rare (copper, lithium, gold, etc.) that this is not true, but for the most part you can get more of whichever resource you want as long as you have enough energy (certainly true for glass, steel, aluminum, plastic; paper is a little bit tighter in supply but not that much). –  Rex Kerr Feb 9 '12 at 19:45
@RexKerr not so in the minds of many of the greenies. They measure everything in tons of CO2 produced in the process, an utter falsehood but that's what's often meant when people claim something is "cleaner" or whatever the reason they want to promote it (more often than not the real reason is social control, not any economic or environmental benefit). –  jwenting Oct 10 '12 at 14:48
@jwenting - Well, it depends what your concern is. If you are worried about ocean acidification, then CO2 is the only thing worth caring about. With climate change, you want to know the balance of all greenhouse gases. If you want to know whether we are living on the planet sustainably, the answer is simply "Ha, no way, not now!" If you want to know exactly how bad we're doing, the answer is complicated. People who don't like complicated answers may prefer to stick with CO2. (There are people who dislike complicated answers on all sides of an issue.) –  Rex Kerr Oct 10 '12 at 17:59
@RexKerr I'd care far more about SO2 than CO2... And no, "climate change" doesn't rely on "greenhouse gasses", or not to any great degree. It relies far more heavily on external factors, like the amount of incoming energy from the sun. But you don't seem to get my point, which is that any one factor is not the sole thing to use to determine whether something is harmful or not, and doing so is fraud perpetrated either because of idiocy or deliberately in order to enrich yourself. –  jwenting Oct 11 '12 at 3:26
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Aluminum recycling is an enormous net win, because a used aluminum can is very nearly the same thing as the output of an aluminum smelter, which consumes huge amounts of irreplaceable fossil fuels. Plastic and paper are not typically recycled at all - they are downcycled into coarser forms.

The best kind of recycling is when the original user of the product finds multiple uses for a product before disposing of it. For example, a glass pickle jar can be washed and reused for food storage practically indefinitely. This is a big win over recycling the glass and buying a brand-new plastic food container.

It is also a big win to rescue useful items that other people would have thrown away. Used appliances and food containers from yard sales are cheap and often perfectly functional.

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This is the reason I like glass. Except companies in UK seem to want to melt perfectly usable glass bottles or jars and remake them into new glass bottles! Utter madness. –  Chris Dennett Apr 14 '11 at 16:51
This answer is not properly referenced. Please add citations to support your claims! :-) –  Sklivvz Apr 27 '11 at 15:50
Follow these steps in this order: Reduce, reuse, recycle. –  Scott Mitchell Jun 5 '11 at 4:28
@ScottMitchell you forgot the last one: Rethink –  Gabriel Fair Feb 9 '12 at 19:40
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