Robert Meganck illustration
With April's feature, "Tangled Up in Green," managing editor Jack Cooksey dug into the topic of where your recycled garbage goes, how it gets there and who's in charge of the process.
In the magazine, we address 10 questions about recycling, but of course, we had more curiosities than we could fit in one feature. So, here, we try to answer one more lingering question:
Is recycling worth it?
While some people have little doubt about recycling's value, others still wonder if it's little more than a feel-good exercise, a suspicion acknowledged by humor newspaper The Onion when it printed this 1997 headline: "EPA: Recycling Eliminated More Than 50 Million Tons of Guilt in '96."
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, however, the benefits are concrete. For example, in a 2007 report the agency notes that, when all is said and done, recycling one ton of aluminum cans is equal to conserving 1,665 gallons of gas. And every ton of mixed paper that's recycled conserves the equivalent of 185 gallons of gas. This factors in the amount of energy it would take to harvest (or mine) raw materials, process them, package them and distribute them.
As we were going to press in March, J. Clifford Fox, assistant director of Virginia Commonwealth University's Center for Environmental Studies, was finishing a review of people's knowledge and attitudes about recycling in our region.
Fox conducted a survey of households within the footprint of the Central Virginia Waste Management Authority, which runs our local recycling programs.
Fox's research was done on behalf of CVWMA to gauge the effectiveness of the authority's programs and educational outreach.
He says preliminary results show about 50 percent to 60 percent of households using the twice-monthly curbside collection services — a favorable participation rate. Also, most respondents showed a high awareness of environmental issues and recognized "the problem of running out of landfill space and with the problem of solid-waste disposal."
Still, Fox notes, there are misconceptions in the general public about the value of recycling.
"A lot of people say things like, ‘If the market for recycled materials isn't good, then it doesn't make sense because it's not paying for itself,' " he says. "But you're not considering all of the benefits."
He adds, "You're really talking about a significant impact on climate change, and that doesn't always get reflected in these costs."
The costs of recycling are a favorite topic of Virginia Tech professor Mike Ellerbrock, who teaches environmental economics and environmental ethics.
"There's a lesson to be learned," Ellerbrock says, "from those old soda-bottle deposits." When soda companies added a 5-cent deposit per bottle, that guaranteed more customers would return the bottles for reuse.
Ellerbrock thinks the same principle should be applied to items such as batteries or large electronics — manufactured goods that carry serious environmental hazards if improperly disposed.
"People will recycle when there's a financial reward for doing so," he says.
He also notes that the benefits of recycling are also tightly connected to the laws of supply and demand: "As certain resources become more scarce, then recycling becomes more valuable."
Of course, ask waste-management experts, and they'll note that recycling is just one tool for conserving energy and natural resources. Kim Hynes, executive director of CVWMA, which oversees our region's recycling programs, points to the "waste-management hierarchy," which includes:
• Source reduction — reducing the amount and/or toxicity of waste at its source.
• Reuse — using materials in the same function for which they were originally produced. For instance, choosing reusable items (like silverware) over disposable items (plasticware); or donating old items like clothing to charity.
• Recycling — processing a material so that it may be used again as a raw material for a product, which may or may nor be similar to the original product.
• Incineration — burning waste creates energy and reduces the volume of waste. May produce harmful side effects such as air pollution and ash that must also be disposed of.
• Landfilling — sandwiching materials between layers of soil and other barriers to prevent contaminants from leaking into groundwater or being discharged into the air.
Steve Coe, an environmental-program specialist with Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, adds that a key aim is to keep waste out of our landfills. "Landfills create methane, which is a greenhouse gas, and we need to prevent that."
By diverting goods into a chain of recycling and reuse, he says, we get only halfway to the goal. More people should consciously opt for goods that contain recycled materials. "It's ultimately a decision in purchasing that makes the recycling process complete."