The Limits of Recycling

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Despite the benefits of recycling programs and their growing popularity, however, recycling has not solved the garbage problem. It is undisputed, for example, that recycling has not reduced the total amount of municipal wastes being generated by Americans. As conservationist Helen Spiegelman acknowledges, "Even after the enormous exertions of America's cities and towns to recycle bottles, cans, newspapers and other consumer products, seventy percent of the products we buy are still going to landfills and incinerators."18 And recycling has no effect on how products are produced or packaged by manufacturers. As journalist and filmmaker Heather Rogers explains:

Recycling treats wastes only after they've already been made. It does nothing to stem rubbish production in the first place. Recycling has contributed to a scaling back in the demands of the public and environmentalists by convincing us that it will remedy the situation. What gets left out of the discussion are more radical calls for things like increased product durability and serviceability, which together with less packaging would drastically cut garbage output. Recycling should be part of a larger plan, but it's not a viable solution on its own.19

Plastic containers are shown in a recycle basket. Plastic is the hardest material to recycle.

Plastic containers are shown in a recycle basket. Plastic is the hardest material to recycle.

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In fact, one of the most widely used industrial materials— plastics—is also the hardest to recycle. The use of plastics in manufacturing, to make everything from beverage containers, household items, carpets, and furniture to plastic bags and packaging materials, has caused plastics to become an increasingly large part of the municipal solid waste (MSW) stream in recent decades. According to the EPA, "In 2007, the United States generated almost 14 million tons of plastics in the MSW stream as containers and packaging, almost 7 million tons as nondurable goods, and about 10 million tons as durable goods."20 This amounted to 12.1 percent of total MSW generation in 2007.

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  • marcel metzger
    What are the limits of recycling?
    1 year ago

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