Recycling: The solution to pollution or part of the problem?

November 16, 2021 4:01 am

Recycling symbol (Design Public Domain Images).

I was recently on a cross-country trip to visit some family. In their kitchen for dinner one evening, I noticed they trash their empty aluminum cans. Knowing their political leanings and the fact they don’t believe humans impact global climate change, I wasn’t particularly surprised. However, as one often does around relatives, I decided to butt in and politely beg the question: With how much soda you drink, is there a reason you don’t recycle? 

Their response was courteous, although punctuated by a definite end to the conversation. They said a friend who works at a recycling plant told them recycling is more environmentally harmful than throwing waste away.

The discussion may have been over, but the mantra I’d been inundated with since childhood began reverberating in my mind. Reduce, reuse, recycle. 

I grew up with Captain Planet. The hero touted “our powers combined” to reduce consumption, reuse packaging, and recycle materials could bring “pollution down to zero.” Here I was feeling taken by a blue superhero with a mullet as green as his Earth-avenging ideology. 

So, I did what any responsible, internet-savvy Millennial does when something challenges their worldview—I turned to Google. 

During the next week, I devoured as much online content about the subject as I could find. I read articles from news sources on all points of the political spectrum. I poured through studies commissioned by government agencies to private researchers. I consumed everything from academic papers and journals to editorial submissions and self-published blogs. I had to know if everything I’d ever been told about recycling was a lie. 

Turns out, some of it was.

However, for the most part, I think my family was misguided by the anecdotal experience of a person they trusted. Maybe you’ve heard something similar. Perhaps you don’t know much about the topic outside of what you hear around America Recycles Day (ICYMI: It was Monday). You might be emulating Captain Planet’s heroism by dutifully recycling and wondering if you’re making any difference. Whoever you are and however invested in combating pollution you may be, I hope you find some of the information I discovered useful. Here are some highlights:

  • Not all recycling is created equal. It is significantly more difficult to recycle plastic or glass than it is to recycle aluminum and cardboard. In the case of plastic, for instance, there are so many chemical compositions, and cutting and cleaning requirements that so long as the price of petrol remains low, it’s more economically sound to produce new bottles. On the other hand, plastic isn’t biodegradable and almost inevitably ends up on a shoreline somewhere for your save-the-ocean documentary viewing pleasure (and guilt) later.
  • Glass in landfills doesn’t harm the environment as it’s an inert material. It’s also heavy to transport and requires a lot of processing. However, the actual energy saved from recycling it is upwards of 30 percent compared to raw production. 
  • There are 30 jobs in recycling for every one job in landfilling or burning waste, which has tremendous job creation possibilities.
  • Recycling was once more popular in the U.S. than it is today. In fact, at the turn of the 20th century, about 70% of cities had recycling programs.
  • It is an absolute no-brainer to recycle aluminum cans. About 90-95% (I saw several figures in this range) less energy is expended, raw bauxite is not unearthed, less oil is used, and fewer square feet of landfill space is occupied. One article had some staggering figures, including that producing one ton of aluminum from bauxite uses 10 times the energy as manufacturing the same amount of glass from sand. Anyone else regretting ever drinking Coke in a glass bottle?
  • As a capitalist mass-consumption country, we actually produce more waste than we have the resources to recycle in the U.S. Further, recycling infrastructure is sorely underfunded.
  • “Wishful recycling” is a thing. Essentially, it’s when do-gooders feel so compelled to recycle that they put a bunch of non-recyclable material in the blue bins. It has to be sorted out, could render otherwise recyclable items useless, and may even damage processing machinery. Your greasy pizza box is going to end up in a landfill, even if you mean well.
  • Fossil fuels are used to run recycling transport vehicles and recycling equipment, yes. But consider your 12-pack. A single can’s traditional lifecycle is being mined as bauxite, manufactured, cracked open for your beverage du jour, and sent to live for all eternity in a landfill. Fossil fuels run the mining equipment, manufacturing machinery, and the truck that takes it to the garbage graveyard to await its other 11 siblings. If you recycle your 12-pack, that’s 12 fewer cans-worth of bauxite and a few open graves at the landfill. 


After scouring the internet for answers, seeing arguments for and against recycling for myriad reasons, I’m left to make my own decision. Ultimately, I’ve seen enough evidence to conclude that the benefits of recycling outweigh the negative impacts. Although now, I will think of Captain Planet’s alliteration as an order of operations. 

First and foremost, I believe it is up to us as individuals and collectively as a society to reduce our consumption. If we continue outpacing our capacity to recycle with excess waste, recycling alone will never be a solution to pollution. By reusing the materials we consume – like glass jars, those Amazon boxes, and plastic bags – we negate the need to produce more or recycle them. One man’s trash is another man’s vehicle for saving the planet, after all. Recycle what you can’t use and what can, in fact, be recycled. And if you need more proof than the word of a friend that recycling is good (or bad), please, do the research for yourself. 

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Tiffini Gallant
Tiffini Gallant

Tiffini Gallant lives in Billings. She has previously worked for The Billings Gazette and Montana State University-Billings.