In 2018, China banned the import of paper and plastic waste from the U.S. These items were being sent to China for recycling. The ban has had a significant impact on the recycling debate as waste builds up in the United States. While some say that recycling is an expensive, inefficient activity and that all waste should be disposed of, others argue that recycling still remains a worthwhile endeavor.
Is recycling worthwhile?
According to a study done by the Environmental Protection Agency, composting and recycling kept about 87.2 million tons of material out of landfills in 2013. This ended up preventing the release of almost 186 million metric tons of CO2 into the environment, which is equal to 39 million cars being taken off the road for a year.
Research done by environmental consultant Dr. Jeffrey Morris shows that “manufacturing products from one ton of recyclables uses 10.4 million Btu; using virgin materials for the same amount requires 23.3 million Btu. As for the collecting, hauling, and processing of those recyclables, that adds only 0.9 million Btu to the total figure,” (Peaceful Dumpling).
Recycling tin and steel cans can save up to 74 percent of the energy required to manufacture new ones. When it comes to aluminum, the number goes up to 95 percent. As for paper, recycling cuts down energy usage by about 60 percent. Plus, it also minimizes deforestation, which is said to be responsible for 25 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. However, recycling everything is not a good idea.
The recycling of items like plastic and glass can be an inefficient affair. More energy will likely be involved in recycling them when they can easily be dumped into a landfill. And unlike what many believe, landfills are not that bad for the environment. Provided that the landfill sites are strictly monitored, pollution can easily be kept down to a bare minimum. Experts earlier predicted that the external costs of recycling borne by society could be as high as US$280 per ton. However, a study on the subject done in 2015 showed that the cost would only be US$9 per ton.
According to economist Thomas C. Kinnaman, the world will be better off charging a carbon tax on garbage rather than sticking with the existing recycling system. Kinnaman “compared the costs of landfilling and recycling and studied the environmental damage of each option… [He found that] taxing [US]$15 on each ton of trash that goes to the landfill and subsidizing the recycling of some aluminum and metals, would be a more efficient system of waste management,” according to Bustle.
The waste problem
The buildup of waste in the U.S., along with the country’s inefficient recycling system, is causing problems in several regions. In the city of Chester, Pennsylvania, the incineration facility has been burning greater amounts of waste, releasing higher amounts of potentially toxic plumes into the atmosphere. This has made the lives of the residents uncomfortable.
“People want to do the right thing by recycling but they have no idea where it goes and who it impacts… People in Chester feel hopeless — all they want is for their kids to get out, escape. Why should we be expendable? Why should this place have to be burdened by people’s trash…?” Zulene Mayfield, who spearheads a community group against the incinerator, said to The Guardian.
There are worries that people living in areas close to incinerators could end up with severe health issues due to their long-term exposure to pollution. In Chester, almost 4 in 10 kids are diagnosed with asthma. Lung cancer and ovarian cancer rates in the city are 24 percent and 64 percent higher than the rest of Pennsylvania.