As the modern world moves into a new age of environmental awareness, it is important to consider the effectiveness of current programs. One of the most widespread and utilized environmental programs is recycling. The EPA supports recycling programs’ effectiveness based on their ability to perform tasks such as conserve natural resources and reduce raw material extraction, save energy, reduce waste and pollution, and stimulate the economy (“Recycling Basics”). Based on the assessment of this criteria, packaging recycling programs do in fact really work.
Recycling programs help to limit raw material extraction and conserve natural resources. Because materials are being reused rather than discarded as waste, there is less demand for raw materials, whose extraction harms the natural environment and limits the supply of nonrenewable resources. Packaging materials are a major contributor to natural resource use. The most common types of packaging used today are paper and paperboard, aluminum, glass, rigid plastics (HDPE and PET), and flexible plastics (LDPE and LLDPE). According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, about 40 percent of the annual industrial wood harvest goes to the production of paper and paperboard (Covington). 70 percent of bauxite, a heavily extracted ore, is used to make aluminum products (“Bauxite”). A large portion of commercial silica sand goes into the production of glass, and 4 percent of total oil production goes to producing plastic (Slav). Glass and aluminum recyclables can most drastically lower raw material extraction, as they can be reused continuously. Other recyclables, like plastics, cannot. Because plastics degrade during recycling and cannot be reused for their original purpose, HDPE, PET, and LDPE products still require raw materials for production. Although, while some natural resource use is still necessary, the recycling process does limit the amount of those resources needed; for example, bubble wrap can be made from recycled LDPE products rather than from raw crude oil, therefore reducing the demand for oil extraction. With each different type of packaging, recycling programs create a decrease in the need for raw materials and natural resources.
Packaging recycling programs help to save energy and therefore reduce the harmful greenhouse gas emissions that come from power plants. It takes 31 percent less energy to produce paper from recycled material rather than from virgin fibers (“Does It Take More Energy to Produce Recycled Paper?”). Plastic bottles require 76 percent less energy to make from recycled materials than from petroleum. Aluminum requires 96 percent less energy to make from recycled cans than from raw bauxite. Lastly, glass requires 26 percent less energy to make from recycled glass rather than silica sand. In all cases, recycling showed a decrease in the amount of energy needed in production. All together, it takes 11.3 million Btu to manufacture products from a ton of recyclables, including the energy needed to collect, haul, and process, while it takes 23.3 million Btu for raw materials (Hutchinson). Clearly, packaging recycling programs limit energy needs, in turn reducing harmful fossil fuel emissions that come from power plants.
There are many ways in which packaging recycling programs limit pollution. One of the most obvious is their direct reduction in ground pollution and landfill waste. Packaging material makes up roughly one-third of the waste in landfills, so sending that material to a recycling plant instead could greatly limit the negative consequences of landfill use (Usi). Landfill waste not only directly harms ecosystems, but also infiltrates water sources in the form of leachate. Reduction in ground pollution simultaneously results in the reduction of air pollution. Waste in landfills are responsible for emitting hydrogen sulfide gas into the air. If less waste is present in landfills, therefore, there is less hydrogen sulfide gas in the atmosphere. The atmosphere also sees a decrease in other harmful greenhouse gases. Waste that is not recycled or added to landfills is often sent to incinerators, which give off harmful emissions such as NOx. Hence, if more material is recycled, less NOx is emitted into the atmosphere. Because products made from recyclables require less energy, they reduce the use of power plants, which burn harmful fossil fuels. In 2005, recycling was responsible for the reduction of greenhouse gas by the equivalent of 9 million tons of carbon dioxide, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (Brenner). However, there are concerns about recycling programs’ role in releasing pollutants into the atmosphere, as recycling plants and transport vehicles run on fossil fuels. Despite this, the EPA claims that “in the case of some materials… the net greenhouse gas emissions reductions enabled by recycling are actually greater than they would be if the waste source was simply reduced” (Westervelt). In other words, according to the EPA, it is more beneficial in the reduction of greenhouse gases to recycle than to even simply reduce. The effectiveness of packaging recycling programs is supported by its strong reduction in both ground and air pollution.
While packaging recycling programs exhibit clear effectiveness in environmental issues, their economic effectiveness is less absolute. The EPA claims that recycling increases economic security. In some ways, this is true. Recycling encourages using a domestic source of materials, which is cheaper than the importation of foreign raw materials. In addition, recycling increases domestic manufacturing, helping to create new jobs within the United States. However, the cost-effectiveness of the recycling process itself is ever changing. Recycling is a business like any other, and fluctuations in the market can affect its cost. Recycling economics are mainly local, and costs vary from city to city. The more money that a local government puts into recycling programs, the more effective that program will be. Thus, it is up to local level initiative to give recycling programs the funding to thrive. In addition, consumer involvement plays a large role in the effectiveness of recycling programs. On average, only about 9 percent of household waste is recycled, plastic being one of the most overlooked recyclable products (Suner). In 2017, only 13 percent of all plastic containers and packaging produced were recycled (“Containers and Packaging: Product-Specific Data”). One way recycling companies counter this lack of involvement is by implementing single-stream systems. In this form of recycling, the consumer places all recyclables in a single bin that is then sorted by the recycling facility. This replaces a dual stream, where the consumer must consciously sort their recyclables. While single-stream recycling increases consumer involvement by 25 percent as opposed to dual-stream, it costs three dollars more per ton to maintain (Howard). There are obvious give-and-takes when it comes to the cost effectiveness of packaging recycling programs, but they ultimately create more benefits than if packaging was simply away. It only costs $30 to recycle one ton of waste, while it takes $50 to send it to the landfill and about $70 to have it incinerated (Usi). While the economic effects are variable on a community level, recycling programs provide numerous stimulants to the economy when they are given the funds to function efficiently.
Packaging recycling programs really work. They reduce the extraction of raw materials and save energy, thus conserving essential nonrenewable resources and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. They limit both ground and air pollution, leading to an overall cleaner planet. Regardless of local variability, packaging recycling programs limit the need for foregin materials and stimulate the domestic manufacturing market. Recycling is effective. It is hereafter in the hands of the consumers to take initiative and actively participate in these programs in order to create a healthier, more sustainable Earth.
Essay by: Lauryn VonAhnen
Blue Valley Northwest High School