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The Pros and Cons of Recycling

Do you recycle in your home or office? How about when you’re out on the street or in a park? The recycling rate in the U.S. is around 34% and has been for years. The country has struggled to reach recycling rates seen in other developed countries. For a detailed look at the issue, let’s examine some of the pros and cons of recycling. 

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Pro 1: There’s an environmental benefit.

Okay, this one is obvious. When you recycle materials you divert them from the landfills or incinerators where trash usually goes. Whether burned in incinerators or left to rot in landfills, materials in our trash can leach chemicals into the air, ground or water. Recycling reduces the waste that goes to polluting landfills and incinerators, and reduces the need to devote land and resources to traditional waste disposal methods.

Pro 2: Recycling creates jobs.

Recycling is a source of jobs in a community. Recycling plants, the manufacture of recycled products and the creation of recycling-related materials like recycling bins all contribute to job growth in the economy. Recycling can be a source of good, middle-class jobs for people without a lot of education under their belt. Along with renewable energy, recycling is a source of green jobs, which some say are critical to a strong 21st-century economy.

Pro 3: Recycling raises overall environmental consciousness.

Recycling can be a gateway to other forms of environmental activism. A homeowner might start out by recycling and graduate to composting or installing solar panels. Recycling, particularly in cities that offer curbside pick-up of recyclables, is an easy way to do something good for the environment and it can lead to other green lifestyle changes, too.

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Pro 4: Recycling reduces the energy used to manufacture goods.

The Pros and Cons of Recycling

Say a company wants to make a garment. To generate the textile from scratch would mean harvesting the cotton or linen crop, or manufacturing the synthetic fabric. But if the same company uses recycled textiles it can cut out that first step of the manufacturing process, saving energy as a result. To the extent that recycling reduces the need for growing, mining or extracting raw materials it has significant environmental benefits.

Con 1: Recycling takes energy, too.

Have you heard of the phrase, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle?” Well, some environmentalists argue that “reduce” and “reuse” have more environmental benefits than “recycle.” That’s because if you consume fewer items you’re doing more for the environment than if you consume more and then recycle what you can. That’s because recycling takes energy, as does manufacturing products from recycled materials.

Con 2: Recycling can lead to pollution.

Some say the environmental benefits of recycling are overrated, not just because it takes energy but because it can lead to pollution. This is said of electronics recycling in particular. Many electronics slated for recycling are shipped overseas to less-developed countries, where they are sorted by hand. During the sorting process, metals and other chemicals may leach into the land and water where the recycling is taking place. This takes a toll on the environment and its inhabitants.

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Con 3: Recycling is costly.

Some critics of recycling say the costs outweigh the benefits and/or exceed community resources. Some towns and cities say they can’t afford to operate recycling programs. In the U.S., landfill space is generally cheaply available, which means that the cost of recycling can exceed the cost of landfill waste disposal in many places. Of course, some materials cost more to recycle than others, which is why some city governments choose not to recycle glass or plastic. The costs of recycling can vary not just based on the materials recycled but on the administration of the recycling program and on demand for recycled materials.

Con 4: Recycling isn’t a slam dunk.

The Pros and Cons of Recycling

Some critics of recycling say that recycling gives people the sense that they’re doing all they need to do on behalf of the environment, when in fact recycling alone isn’t enough to, say, fight climate change or eliminate pollution. These critics worry that there will be too many people who shop a lot, eat a lot of animal products and take long-haul flights but think that recycling offsets the environmental impact of their other choices.

Bottom Line

Most people agree that recycling has significant benefits, even if it isn’t a perfect solution to our environmental problems. Though it can be a bit of an inconvenience, recycling has empowered households and businesses to feel like they’re doing something to make their community – and their country – a more eco-friendly place.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/jat306, ©iStock.com/ms_seal, ©iStock.com/hroe

Amelia Josephson Amelia Josephson is a writer passionate about covering financial literacy topics. Her areas of expertise include retirement and home buying. Amelia's work has appeared across the web, including on AOL, CBS News and The Simple Dollar. She holds degrees from Columbia and Oxford. Originally from Alaska, Amelia now calls Brooklyn home.
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