Ok, what's *really* worth recycling?
February 1, 2010 1:38 PM   Subscribe

After reading this old recycling thread, I wonder something.....

1) We are reasonable able to list off the things that are accepted at recycling depots...cardboard, various plastics, computer equipment, etc.

2) People more knowledgeable than I know what effort it takes to transport, break down, and re-use the materials that are gleaned from this recycling.

3) So is there a list of each of these materials, listing which are worth recycling and which are not, based on the value of the recovered materials and what transportation costs are associated with them?

I want to use/buy less stuff, but the stuff that I do buy and use, I want to know *specifically* what's better to put in the landfill myself rather than paying my taxes to pay a private company to ship somewhere else that may result in the refuse being thrown in a landfill farther away.

Pre-snark: I know that recycling is valuable for a number of things and wish to do what I can. I also don't want to further hurt the planet by just following directions blidly.
posted by swimming naked when the tide goes out to Technology (9 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
While looking into this for my college's "green" club, I found a series of articles from Popular Mechanics that seems to be a good start: Recycling By the Numbers: Here’s how much energy recycling saves and how much that’s worth (aluminum, glass, newsprint, plastic) and Is Recycling Worth It? PM Investigates its Economic and Environmental Impact. And as linked in that thread, Slate's "Green Lantern" column writes about this sometimes (on paper, for example).

I would also recommend looking up your area's specific guidelines, since this varies so much depending on your local trash/recycling processing centers. My county and city have recyling and trash websites that provide a lot of detail if you're patient enough to read them.
posted by dreamyshade at 1:56 PM on February 1, 2010


There will not a fixed answer for many materials. Much will depend on how far you live from a recycling plant for a particular material, if it is a considerable distance then the additional energy needed to transport it may swing the balance of cost vs benefits. Other factors may also play a part. In the UK for example, there was a report in the 1990s that it may be more beneficial to put paper in the bin if one lives near to an incinerator set up for energy-from-waste production.
posted by biffa at 2:04 PM on February 1, 2010


Also, even if it's not "worth it" now to recycle a particular, sustained recycling of that material may lead to improved processes so that it will be worth it later. For example, the first article linked by dreamyshade has the following quotes:

"PET usually gets “downcycled” into lower-grade fibers, but it’s now possible to make it into new bottles. The price has doubled in the past two years; the market should continue to mature."

"It’s very hard to sort PS from other plastics, so few cities even try. But new infrared sorting technologies could help make PS recycling viable."

It may well be that these improvements in recycling technology would have happened even if PET and polystyrene had been landfilled previously. But I can well imagine a research grant proposal, otherwise a borderline case given the fierce competition for funds, being pushed over the edge to funding on the strength of the fact that X tons of these materials were _already being brought to recycling centers_ and that an incremental improvement to the technology could lead to X times $Y in profit.
posted by amtho at 2:52 PM on February 1, 2010


Aluminum and glass are the best things to recycle. For example if you were choosing between buying a six-pack of soda or a 2-liter plastic bottle, go with the six-pack on the basis of recycling potential.

(You can tell that aluminum and glass are the best, because a lot of states actually pay you to recycle them.)

Other things like paper and PET plastic can be recycled, and it's certainly better to recycle them than to throw them in the trash. But as a general rule, America is swamped in that stuff. Supply is way outstripping demand, and a lot of cities are talking about possibly having to stop collecting those materials for recycling.
posted by ErikaB at 3:26 PM on February 1, 2010


Penn & Teller did a "Bullshit" about this and the basic conclusion was that nothing is worth recycling except aluminum cans. It takes quite a lot of energy to produce aluminum from ore so that makes sense. I don't think they covered batteries though.
posted by chairface at 5:46 PM on February 1, 2010


Electronics batteries made NiCad, Lithium, etc., CFL light bulbs, and oil-based waste like paints should be kept out of the waste stream, and recycling is the best way to do that. Aluminum is very worthwhile to recycle, and copper in quantity. You can also compost a lot of food and/or yard waste.
posted by theora55 at 7:40 PM on February 1, 2010


Penn & Teller did a "Bullshit" about this and the basic conclusion was that nothing is worth recycling except aluminum cans. It takes quite a lot of energy to produce aluminum from ore so that makes sense. I don't think they covered batteries though.

I've heard similar comments on recycling, and think it's bunk, because I don't think it takes into consideration the costs of landfills. Landfills don't make things go away, they're just stored in a useless place. Landfills are sealed systems now, tombs for our waste, due to issues with groundwater pollution and in an effort to keep scavenging animals out of dumps. And once a landfill is full, there is need to find another one. The most you can do with a full landfill is make a park, as it's not a stable base for buildings.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:34 AM on February 2, 2010


Aluminum and glass are the best things to recycle. For example if you were choosing between buying a six-pack of soda or a 2-liter plastic bottle, go with the six-pack on the basis of recycling potential.

(You can tell that aluminum and glass are the best, because a lot of states actually pay you to recycle them.)

You shouldn't make this kind of assumption. How about considering how much energy goes into getting the metal vs plastic to the store in the first place?
posted by biffa at 7:21 AM on February 5, 2010


filthy light thief: I think they did take that into consideration in the show but I haven't seen it in years. You should at least watch the show and draw your own conclusions. Its true P&T are selling a specific viewpoint and they are trying to make an entertaining show, not set public policy.
posted by chairface at 1:12 PM on February 16, 2010


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