Reduce! Reuse! Recycle?

By Jessica McGinley

Many people say they are “green” because they recycle. Although it is one of the original three R’s, contrary to what many people believe, recycling is not good for the environment. Recycling still produces carbon emissions, uses water, and contributes to landfills. Many different materials can be recycled, but this essay will focus on the production of recycling plastics since it is more difficult than simply melting the material and it is one of the most recycled materials.

Recycling is obviously better than simply throwing something into a landfill; however, it still requires energy and resources to transport, sort, and transform the plastic into a reusable material. For every 1 ton of plastics recycled, only ⅓ of carbon emissions are conserved (1,2) compared to the production of virgin plastics. According to the Department of Environment and Conservation, there is an estimated 1.5 tons of CO2 emissions per ton of recycled PET (4), which is the most effective type of plastic to recycle. Although plastic recycling does conserve some carbon emissions, we cannot disregard the greenhouse gas emissions from the recycling process.

Recycling involves many different steps, including sorting, cleaning, and separating. The plastics must be washed with a hot water washer to rinse off residues such as glue and oil. Later in the recycling process after reducing the plastics into pellets, the pellets must be separated which is typically done by dumping the pellets into a tank full of water. Based on densities, the pellets will separate in the water into the different types of plastics (7).

Cal has been committed to going “Zero Waste by 2020” and has a diversion rate of about 50% as of 2017(6). In Cal’s zero waste plan, recycling does not contribute to the campus’ waste production since it isn’t going directly to the landfill. Does recycling actually produce “zero waste,” though? About 18.5% of material is not recovered in the process of recycling PET (2), which is one of the two types of plastics recycled in Berkeley. Although recycling may divert a decent amount of material from being directly put into the landfill, it still produces waste. Many people also overlook the fact that, for the most part, plastics can only be recycled once. When we recycle plastics, we are only temporarily diverting the material from being disposed in the landfill. After we recycle that plastic water bottle and use it for something else, it is thrown in the landfill along with the material that was disposed of during the recycling process.

We cannot consider recycling good for the environment; recycling should be seen as less harmful for the environment than always using virgin plastics, but still a consequence of human consumption that negatively impacts the environment. This is not saying that you shouldn’t recycle your water bottle, but do not justify buying a one-use water bottle rather than bringing your own water bottle since you are going to recycle it. The only solution to 100% zero waste is to avoid single use plastics completely.

1.https://www.epa.nsw.gov.au/~/media/EPA/Corporate%20Site/resources/warrlocal/100058-benefits-of-recycling.ashx

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2873020/

2. https://onlinelibrary-wiley-com.libproxy.berkeley.edu/doi/10.1002/9781118991978.hces191

https://onlinelibrary-wiley-com.libproxy.berkeley.edu/doi/10.1111/jiec.12808

3. https://onlinelibrary-wiley-com.libproxy.berkeley.edu/doi/10.1002/9781118991978.hces191

4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2873020/

5. http://pacinst.org/publication/bottled-water-and-energy-a-fact-sheet/

6. https://sustainability.berkeley.edu/sustainability-performance/waste

7. http://www.plasticrecyclingmachine.net/hot-water-washer/

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