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Expensive and inefficient - is recycling really worth it?

We have been taught our whole lives that recycling is an important responsibility, almost a moral duty. Every time we recycle one plastic bottle, it boosts our ego, brings a spring to our step, and makes us smile. However, is recycling always beneficial to the environment? Is it a completely harmless process? Like other industries, there are many flaws in the recycling industry that everyone should know about.

(Source: Sox Cartoons)

It costs too much

Recycling is actually more expensive than expected. An extra $300 needs to be spent to recycle one ton of rubbish in New York City, rather than transporting it to a landfill. This cost could be spent elsewhere, in research and development; for example, seeking ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in manufacturing. Although one can argue that such costs are worth the results, the extortionate amount spent on fuel to transport rubbish within and between countries is still unreasonable. This cost deficit is apparent in municipalities and large corporations like Walmart, which promised to use three billion pounds of recycled plastic in its packaging by 2020. However, this promise turned out to be too costly to achieve and has also been hindered by the lack of materials, making it hard to justify this extra cost.

Recycling plastic and glass isn’t efficient enough

To those who believe that money spent on recycling is worth it because of its environmental benefits, it may be surprising to hear that recycling certain materials, like plastic and glass, is not energy efficient at all. According to the New York Times, you need to recycle 40,000 plastic bottles to counter the greenhouse effects of an economy class flight from New York to London, and 100,000 bottles for a business class flight. In 2016, there were around 823 million flights carried out in the US, but only 12 million plastic bottles are recycled each year. Clearly, not enough plastic bottles are recycled, which suggests that we need more efficient methods of processing our waste.

Moreover, as water is used to wash recyclable goods, such as glass before they are processed, this wastes a lot of water. The water is also heated by coal-generated electricity, which further increases the net carbon footprint of the process. Hence, recycling plastic and glass is so inefficient that it can have negative environmental impacts in the long run.

...but recycling aluminium, cardboard and paper is

However, recycling isn’t entirely pointless, as recycling other materials, such as aluminium, cardboard and paper is very favourable. Although recycling three tons of glass is required to save one ton of carbon dioxide, only one ton of soda cans is needed save three tons of carbon dioxide. This is because recycling aluminium does not result in any changes in the metal, so the process is much more energy efficient. Relative to the cost of manufacturing paper and cardboard from raw materials, it is more actually cost-effective to recycle them, unlike plastic and glass.


The recycling process creates a surprising amount of air pollution, especially from transportation and the recycling plants. In 2009, around 179,000 recycling and garbage lorries were used, with each lorry producing over 35 airborne toxins. Although it is the lorries emitting such pollutants, the recycling industry still, nevertheless, uses lorries for transport, and will remain to do so until better and more cost-efficient forms of transport are available found.

More importantly, recycling plants are the most polluting part of the procedure. The top four polluters in the Washington state are recycling plants, as they release greenhouse gases and produce hazardous chemicals. In 2013, it was discovered that metal-recycling plants in Houston produced hexavalent chromium, one of the most potent carcinogens known, which could be a cause of lung cancer when inhaled over a period of time. Evidently, some areas of the recycling industry not only harm the environment, but directly impair our health as well.

What can we do?

The point of this article is not to stop you from recycling. Instead, it is to highlight some flaws of the recycling process that is often concealed from the public. The expense of recycling is unjustified given the lack of environmental benefits of recycling plastic and glass, which exacerbate the issue of pollution instead of alleviating it. In contrast, there are some undeniable and obvious benefits to recycling aluminium, cardboard and paper, as it is energy and cost efficient. Therefore, it is important to consider what we recycle, noting that it is much more productive to reduce our consumption of such materials as a whole.

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