Green Living

How could recycling be a bad choice?
Answered by Jennifer Horton, Jaymi Heimbuch and 1 other
  •  Jennifer Horton

    Jennifer Horton

  • Jaymi Heimbuch

    Jaymi Heimbuch

  • Planet Green

    Planet Green

  1. With all the hype surrounding the importance of recycling, this can be a hard question to answer. Yet when you consider the popular environmental mantra to "reduce, re-use, recycle," it turns out there's a reason recycling is the third "R."

    While recycling products like aluminum cans (which requires 95 percent less energy than creating new ones) and steel (it takes 60 percent less energy to recycle than produce new and prevents the mining of iron, coal and limestone) is a no-brainer, the benefits of recycling other products is a little less clear-cut [sources: Can Manufacturers Institute, Economist].

    One category of recyclable goods that's gotten a lot of press is e-waste -- things like printer cartridges and discarded electronics like telephones and DVRs. When you drop off these items to be recycled, the majority of them end up in countries like China and India, where regulations for dealing with them are either non-existent or not enforced. There, men, women and even children work to tear the electronics apart and extract the parts that still have value. The methods involved are usually highly toxic, polluting the surrounding environment and endangering lives.

    The water in the Lianjiang River in China, where e-waste is often dumped after being scavenged, contains 200 times the acceptable amount of acid and 2,400 times the acceptable amount of lead [source: Judge]. The chemicals to which workers are exposed -- including dioxins, heavy metals and mercury -- can lead to brain and kidney damage and chronic illnesses like asthma and skin diseases [source: Bhowmick].

    In the end, whether or not recycling is a "good" or a "bad" choice involves many different factors, including a close examination of not only the potential energy and materials saved, but also the energy and materials produced and whether there are standards in place to make sure it's done properly. This isn't to say that recycling electronics is always a bad thing, just that it's important to investigate how it's being done. So if you're still intent on recycling your old TV when you upgrade to a new flat screen, just make sure it's with a reputable company that goes about it responsibly.

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  2. Jaymi Heimbuch
    Recycling is never a "bad" choice -- but how we handle the recyling process can be, as is the fact that we rely too heavily on recycling, rather than reducing consumption in the first place.

    The concept of recycling itself is necessary, and indeed one of the most natural systems that exist, since everything on the planet is constantly recycled from water to plants to animals to air.

    However, we often create so-called recyclable materials that take massive amounts of energy to break down and reform, and often the reformed material is of an inferior quality. This happens often with plastics. Some materials can be recycled time and again, such as glass or aluminum -- but unfortunately these materials also require large amounts of energy to break down, melt down, and reform.

    While recycling is usually a smart choice, the smartest choice is reducing -- cutting down on packaging, goods in general, and ensuring things last as long as possible and are reused whenever possible is the best way to make recycling really count.

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  3. The issue is a complicated one. You have to look at all the factors involved, which include direct environmental impact, the cost in time and money to recycle materials, the energy you need to make products from recycled versus virgin materials and whether the new products will also be recyclable. It's not as simple as trying to avoid throwing something into a landfill. If recycling the product generates more waste in the form of chemicals, greenhouse emissions or other pollutants, it may be the wrong choice.

    Recycle Landfill Qa2
    (Brand X Pictures/Thinkstock)

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