Common Recycling Myths

Myth: There are no markets for recyclables.

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Demand for recycled materials has never been greater and, in many cases, exceeds the supply currently provided by the American public. Domestic and international markets exist for all materials collected in curbside recycling programs, as long as they meet basic quality standards. In fact, there is intense competition among users for many recycled materials.

Myth: We are already recycling as much as we can.

The national recycling rate is 28%. U.S. EPA has set a goal of 35% and many communities are recycling 50% or more. Many easily recycled materials are still thrown away. For example, 73% of glass containers, 77% of magazines, 66% of plastic soda and milk bottles, and 45% of newspapers are not recycled. All District residents are offered either curbside recycling or recycling drop-off centers, but many still have not taken advantage of this opportunity.

Myth: Recycling causes more pollution than it prevents.

Recycling is one of the best environmental success stories of the late 20th century. Recycling and composting diverted nearly 70 million tons of material away from landfills and incinerators in 2000, up from 34 million tons in 1990 - doubling in just 10 years. It also takes about 95% less energy to recycle aluminum than it does to make it from raw materials. Companies that make new products from recycled material use 30 percent less energy. That's because they don't have to process the raw materials from scratch. As a result recycling, nets reduction in ten major categories of air pollutants and eight major categories of water pollutants.

Myth: Recycling doesn't save trees or other natural resources.

Recycling conserves natural resources, such as timber, water and minerals. Every bit of recycling makes a difference. For example, one year of recycling on just one college campus, Stanford University, saved the equivalent of 33,913 trees and the need for 636 tons of iron ore, coal, and limestone. Recycled paper supplies more than 37% of the raw materials used to make new paper products in the U.S. - without recycling, this material would come from trees.

Myth: There is plenty of landfill space, so why bother?

Recycling true value comes from preventing pollution and saving natural resources and energy, not landfill space. Recycling is largely responsible for averting the landfill crisis. The number of landfills in the United States is steadily decreasing - from 8,000 in 1988 to 1,858 in 2001. The capacity, however, has remained relatively constant. New landfills are much larger than in the past.

Myth: Landfills and incinerators are safe.

Landfills, not properly managed, can be major sources of groundwater pollution. For example, leachate from solid waste landfills is similar in composition to that of hazardous waste landfills. Municipal solid waste landfills are the largest source of human-related methane emissions in the United States, accounting for about 34% of these emissions, which are a potent cause of global warming. Paper decomposing in landfills, which could be recycled instead, is a major source of this methane.

In the incinerators toxic metals are released. At the temperatures of combustion many of the toxic metals such as lead, cadmium, arsenic, mercury and chromium are liberated from otherwise fairly stable matrices like plastics. Furthermore, they are liberated in the form of tiny particles or gases, which, if they escape from the stack, vastly increase the potential surface area of contact between themselves and the environment.

Myth: If recycling makes sense, the free market will make it happen.

Government supports lots of services that the free market wouldn’t provide, such as the delivery of running water, electricity, and mail to our homes. If the market were truly free, long-standing subsidies that favor virgin materials and landfills would not exist, and recycling could compete on a level playing field.

Recycling and Waste Reduction District of Porter County, NRC's Environmental benefits Calculator, NRC's Recycling Economic Information Study, US Environmental Protection Agency, Steel Recycling Institute, American Forest & Paper Association, BioCycle Magazine, Resource Recycling Magazine, American Plastics Council, Glass Packaging Institute, Aluminum Association, WorldWatch Institute.
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