Can Recycling Be Bad for the Environment?

Jul 14, 2009 by Miranda Marquit weblog
Recycling may not always be good for the environment.

(PhysOrg.com) -- By now, nearly everyone knows that it is important to recycle. It helps the environment. Even my six-year-old knows that. But what if it doesn't? While it seems pretty straightforward, in most cases, there are times when recycling can harm more than it helps. This is especially true when plastics are involved.

Recycling paper and glass is pretty straightforward. Metal is also fairly straightforward. But plastics are different. Plastics have a complex chemical make-up that changes the equation. If you look on a plastic container, you might notice a number by the recycle sign. These numbers run from one to seven, and each has a different meaning. (You can go to the Daily Green for a list of plastics numbers and what they mean.)

Before you chuck your plastics into the bin, you need to know whether or not your city's waste disposal program can handle that type of plastic. My city claims that it can handle anything numbered one through six. The city is clear that it does not want packaging that does not have a number on it. Some municipalities only have the ability to handle plastics labeled with ones and twos. Discover points out the problem that comes with mixing plastics:

"Any contamination in the recycle bin compromises the strength and durability of the recycled plastic that is produced, which in turn compromises its future use as a material for manufacturers. A recycled container needs to be strong enough to hold the weight of the contents inside, and many container shapes already contain weak spots where the plastic has a reduced thickness—near a bottle's handle, for example."

Weaker materials mean that fewer companies are willing to use recycled materials in their products. And that means that more resources are consumed in favor of creating all-new packaging. Which is bad for the environment. Some say that this means you should reduce the amount of products you buy that contain plastic. But whether you decide to go that route or not, if you are concerned about the environment, you might make sure that you aren't doing more harm than good when you place in your recycle bin.

© 2009 PhysOrg.com

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User comments : 26

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kerry
3 / 5 (2) Jul 14, 2009
No problem when you use stainless steel or glass bottles!
Sean_W
Jul 14, 2009
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
vika_Tae
1 / 5 (5) Jul 14, 2009
My local authority cannot handle any plastic, so I solve that problem by burning all plastic bottles, packaging materials and containers. Its stupid, but there's a fee levied to take away non-recyclable materials, so its economical for me to do that.
powercosmic
3.8 / 5 (4) Jul 14, 2009
America needs to just ban plastic bottles like Australia did. Using alum cans and glass is much more environs friendly and unlike plastic glass containers can be boiled and reused without recycling like in the olden days of the 1970's
codesuidae
3.3 / 5 (4) Jul 14, 2009
Glass and metal packaging dramatically increases the shipping weight of products. Because we ship most products great distances this adds to the price of the product as well as increasing the quantity of fuel required to move it.

Glass packaging has the same problem as plastic packaging in that there are many different kinds and mixing them during recycling results in a mostly unusable mess.

Glass is difficult to recycle economically. It's heavy, difficult to sort and cheap to produce which is a bad combination for recycling.

So, while plastics can be complicated to recycle, switching back to glass and metal packaging may not be as simple an answer as it appears at first. It may be more economical and more green to reconsider how post-consumer plastics recycling is done.

One option would be to set better standards on how product packaging is produced in order to address the problems.

For example, plastics for consumer product packaging could perhaps be required to be doped with a signature chemical that allows for rapid automated sorting, but that does not adversely impact the product characteristics.
magpies
3 / 5 (2) Jul 15, 2009
Recycled knowledge.
spacester
4.3 / 5 (7) Jul 15, 2009
Can Recycling Be Bad for the Environment?

It drives me crazy that some people cannot tell the difference between *doing* something and doing something *well*

I'd rather see a headline like this:

Recycling Badly can Be Bad for the Environment.

I also rather see an updated answer to a related question:

Is Recycling Good for the Environment?

To me, it's always been more about keeping landfill costs down for local governments than saving the environment.

But maybe that's just me.

And another thing . . . vika_Tae . . . "burning all plastic bottles, packaging materials and containers. Its stupid, . . ."

OMG, do you have any idea just HOW stupid? I don't want to go all eco-police on you, because if I did, I'd point out that you've basically just confessed to a capital eco-crime.

The combustion products of that low-temperature incineration are NASTY NASTY pollution. Good old fashioned killer pollution that we mostly got rid of over the last few decades, got rid of except for ignorant actions like yours.

Nothing personal, I'll just assume you didn't know any better.

Buck up and pay the disposal fee, or reduce, reuse and recycle, 'k?
smiffy
2.3 / 5 (3) Jul 15, 2009
Maybe all plastic packaging should be colour-coded according to its recycling type. This means sorting can be done where it's most efficient and where it properly belongs - with the end user. Marketing and advertising departments will just have to put up with losing their precious colour choices for display packaging.
Velanarris
4.8 / 5 (5) Jul 15, 2009
Maybe all plastic packaging should be colour-coded according to its recycling type. This means sorting can be done where it's most efficient and where it properly belongs - with the end user. Marketing and advertising departments will just have to put up with losing their precious colour choices for display packaging.
Or the people who chose to recycle could just read the clearly marked label that already exists.

I don't have a problem with recycling, I do have a problem with altering everything we know simply because some people are too dumb to read a number off the package.

denijane
5 / 5 (3) Jul 15, 2009
Wow, very interesting article. I admit I didn't know about the numbers on the package-never seen such on the plastic bottles home and I seriously doubt that our city differ between different mixtures. However I still prefer to recycle them (or try to), because it takes them away from landfills and it hopefully evades the toxic gases that burning them produces.

However, I see one very good reason not to use plastic bottles-the hormone-like stuff that leak on their content. There were already many articles on the issues even here. A link I found trough Google:
http://dailynight...aspx?p=1
For me, my health is with a higher priority than the increase in the price of the product or the possible increase in the fuel used, so I will stick with the glass bottles. Even more, most stuff I buy are produced in my country, so I think the damage isn't so big.
iknow
1 / 5 (1) Jul 15, 2009
Smiffy.....have u seen Japanese packaging? No chance mate...no chance.

And the titles is not wrong...learn to read ppl
smiffy
4.5 / 5 (2) Jul 15, 2009
Or the people who chose to recycle could just read the clearly marked label that already exists.

I don't have a problem with recycling, I do have a problem with altering everything we know simply because some people are too dumb to read a number off the package.
Not only are some people too dumb to read an obscure marking that's only readable to people who have the time and eyesight, but there are many many more who simply don't have the inclination - they simply can't be bothered.

What's more, since end-users can't be relied to get it right, each item will need to be checked at the recycling depot, which completely defeats the user doing the sorting in the first place. Colour-coded is easy to spot both at the recycling centre and by the collection agency. Users are much more likely to sort if their missorts are obvious to everybody. Then the number of missorts would be reduced to a point where there is no corruption of the plastic base due for reprocessing. And the fact that household items are colour-coded would be an unmistakable advertisement to impress all consumers of the need to recycle - a reminder which is needed by many folk around where I live.

A system where missorts aren't obvious from a glance just won't work.
Egnite
3 / 5 (2) Jul 15, 2009
I agree with powercosmic, ban plastic bottles. There's no good to them other than cheapness, and it's only the corporations who benefit from that. Plastic bottles pollute our environment and poison our bodies!! Why people would do either for "convienience" is beyond me, steel or glass are fine for containing liquids so why damage yourself or planet?
Velanarris
5 / 5 (1) Jul 15, 2009
Or we could simply use an all encompassing recycling system where sorting isn't necessary, most likely resulting in more people recycling due to it's ease.

A system where missorts aren't obvious from a glance just won't work.
A system that requires complex interaction from the initiating user is also bound to fail. The best systems are autonomous, or simplified to the point of relative autonomy.
Roach
3.5 / 5 (4) Jul 15, 2009
Velanarris, do you realize the demand you are making on people, to recognize a number between 1 and 7? There are enough people that can't recognize hot vs. cold coffee or saving money vs spending money. We must coddle the masses. think for them, rather than letting people roam free where they are prone to doing stupid stuff.
smiffy
3.5 / 5 (2) Jul 15, 2009
A system that requires complex interaction from the initiating user is also bound to fail.
Try telling that to many local authorities around the world where they have implemented just such very systems - and are pledged to increase. These systems are the reality. Until that fundamental reality changes, improvement of current systems is the order of the day.
The best systems are autonomous, or simplified to the point of relative autonomy.
Of course, but as it stands you're dreaming. Practical economical concrete examples please.

America needs to just ban plastic bottles like Australia did
One small town in Australia has banned water being sold in plastic bottles.
Shootist
2.8 / 5 (5) Jul 15, 2009
"By now, nearly everyone knows that it is important to recycle"

Don't count me in on your Utopian BS. It cost far more, in terms of energy and money, to "recycle" than it does, to not.
Velanarris
not rated yet Jul 15, 2009
The best systems are autonomous, or simplified to the point of relative autonomy.
Of course, but as it stands you're dreaming. Practical economical concrete examples please.

Trash collection. The initiating user drags a barrel to the corner and it is emptied by the system.

If recycling was that easy, I'm pretty sure everyone would do it.
lengould100
5 / 5 (2) Jul 15, 2009
I definitely agree with banning sale of water in plastic bottles! That's the very dumbest thing i can imagine, people in the developed world buying water in plastic bottles which leak unset resins, residues of lubricants used in the forming dies, etc. etc. etc. when perfectly seafe drinking water is available from taps all over the developed world. And get a clue, people. If the tapwater in your community is unsafe because some corporation (a plastic bottle manufacturer?) has polluted it or something, then make that corporation fix it!

Dr. David Suzuki often lamented that even in Canada, for crying out loud, business would eventually take away access to clean fresh water! Our forebearers would be incredulous.
lengould100
2.3 / 5 (3) Jul 15, 2009
"By now, nearly everyone knows that it is important to recycle"

Don't count me in on your Utopian BS. It cost far more, in terms of energy and money, to "recycle" than it does, to not.

Get at least ONE clue!
wiyosaya
5 / 5 (2) Jul 15, 2009
I really hate article like this. Why?

"Before you chuck your plastics into the bin, you need to know whether or not your city's waste disposal program can handle that type of plastic."

I really hate this because it attempts to push the problem off onto the general public rather than the municipality that actually performs the recycling.

I live in a US region where the county does all the recycling. It includes a relatively large US city, population wise, but in the complete county there are approximately 500,000 residents. Our county only accepts 1 and 2 plastic for recycling. The reason for not accepting the rest? "It is not economical." I really hate these "economic arguments." As opposed to putting 3 - 7 plastic into a landfill to essentially be taken care of by plate tectonics if it does not pop up as an exponentially more expensive problem to some future human descendants, it seems the better approach would be to accept all plastics for recycling.

Call me an enviro waco if you like, but to me, it makes much more sense to take care of the issue before it becomes an issue further down the road and costs some future generation 10 or 20 or more times to clean up our mess what it would have cost us to recycle it now.

If all plastics were accepted for recycling everywhere, that would make it unnecessary for the general public to make any distinction between types of plastic. You would simply put all plastic in your recycle bin and be done with it. No color coding, no paying attention to some number that some do not realize is there. Problem solved for the general public - don't push the problem onto the general public because as the comments here indicate, even some "educated" people are simply not aware of the recycling indicators on plastic. Just imagine some of the uneducated general public out there.

And to those in charge of recycling for regions and what it costs? Grin, bear it, and think of what it is saving your descendants.

On the issue of plastic exuding harmful materials, it is known that not every type of plastic exudes harmful materials when used as food storage containers. I am not sure which ones do, but I do know that 1s and 2s do not. I buy my water in "1" gallon jugs. They all go into the recycle bin when they are empty.
Velanarris
5 / 5 (1) Jul 15, 2009
"By now, nearly everyone knows that it is important to recycle"

Don't count me in on your Utopian BS. It cost far more, in terms of energy and money, to "recycle" than it does, to not.


Get at least ONE clue!


Len, he is correct. The only exception being tin cans. Tin cans are the only item that cost less to recycle, in terms of energy, than create new ones due to the difficulty in mining bauxite.

As for the economics of the issue, I agree with wiyosaya. It's a problem with the system, not the individuals residing in that system.
lengould100
5 / 5 (2) Jul 16, 2009
Well aluminum beverage cans was the obvious example which just flashes blinding light at that dumb statement. 1) aluminum beverage cans 2) any steel food can 3) glass beer bottles 4) newsprint and cardboard which is easily re-cycled into toilet paper.

The obvious net energy benefits of not pitching AT LEAST these items into a landfill make that statement IDIOTIC.
Velanarris
not rated yet Jul 16, 2009
Well aluminum beverage cans was the obvious example which just flashes blinding light at that dumb statement. 1) aluminum beverage cans 2) any steel food can 3) glass beer bottles 4) newsprint and cardboard which is easily re-cycled into toilet paper.

The obvious net energy benefits of not pitching AT LEAST these items into a landfill make that statement IDIOTIC.


No, the ONLY example is bauxite based aluminum cans. Everything else in your list is easier to produce from raw materials than recycle from an energy standpoint.

Soylent
not rated yet Jul 18, 2009
OMG, do you have any idea just HOW stupid? I don't want to go all eco-police on you, because if I did, I'd point out that you've basically just confessed to a capital eco-crime.

The combustion products of that low-temperature incineration are NASTY NASTY pollution. Good old fashioned killer pollution that we mostly got rid of over the last few decades, got rid of except for ignorant actions like yours.


If I get the time I'll make sure to mix up a nice little batch of pyrotechnic smoke mixture based on PVC, zinc oxide, ammonium chloride and thiourea for the next earth day, just for you.

Mmm, dioxins.
kasen
5 / 5 (3) Jul 19, 2009
Has anyone ever considered that recycling need not necessarily mean throwing things away? A bottle can simply be used as a container for stuff other than the original product.
Also, I believe it's economically feasible to simply stop selling drinks in rationed form, and just replace those see-through fridges with taps. The company that produces the item doesn't need to worry with packaging, and the customer could buy any quantity he wants, as long as he provides an adequate container. Whatever extra functionality a delivery truck would require can't be more expensive than having a good proportion of the transported ware being the packaging.
Damon_Hastings
not rated yet Jul 21, 2009
codesuidae wrote:

For example, plastics for consumer product packaging could perhaps be required to be doped with a signature chemical that allows for rapid automated sorting, but that does not adversely impact the product characteristics.

Brilliant idea! It bears repeating. :-)