When comparing the amount of energy, costs, and the pollution involved using recycled material versus virgin materials for the manufacture of new products, recycling does have some advantages.
"Resource conservation or sustainability is the reason for recycling, but there are other reasons," said Rob Guttridge, Waste Reduction Specialist of Clark County Washington Environmental Services. "Three more reasons to recycle are: economic value of the material; protecting the environment; and public demand. Each of these has their place.
"Sustainability is a word that can be used to describe the process of looking at the whole to see how it fits together to keep our community viable and healthy for people to live in the long-term. It is a way of describing long-term planning or thinking," said Guttridge.
Jon Proulx, a planner with the Village of Plainfield, Ill., said his village "considers sustainability to be society's consumption of resources at a pace that is less than or equal to the pace those resources are generated."
One of the urban myths, according to Mick Barry at Greenstar North America, a Houston, Texas-based recycling services firm, is that recycled items cannot be reused to produce new products of equal or greater quality to those items produced of virgin raw materials. Actually, recycling and the use of recycled products have been around longer than most consumers realize and there is no evidence to back up the myth.
The steel industry was one of the first to embrace recycling. "They realized very quickly from an economic standpoint, that it made sense to recycle old materials," said Barry. "Like glass production, this allowed steel producers to use less energy operating their furnaces to melt down and reconstitute old material into new material. The paper industry is another that began recycling before it became the ‘green' thing to do."
For example, recycled pulp produced in the production of paper requires fewer chemicals during the processing stage. According to the Clark County website, production of new paper from recycled materials saves approximately 40% of the energy that it would take to produce paper from virgin trees. The production of new aluminum from recycled materials is said to save as much as 95% of the energy that it would take to make it from virgin mineral ore.
The production of new plastic products using recycled material is said to save up to 33% of the energy required to manufacture it from new fossil fuels - mostly oil and gas.
Production of new steel products from recycled materials is said to save up to 74% of the energy that it would take to make steel from virgin mineral ore.
New glass, when produced from recycled materials, is said to save 30% of the energy that is required to make it from new raw materials.
"Recycling is tapping into unused energy in the recovered products," said Barry. "When you look at the process from an economic perspective, a producer can look at how much energy is not going to be used to produce a new product. The long-term sustainability of recycling hinges on looking at it in terms of the cost of energy and capturing the reusable energy trapped in the bales of raw materials recovered for recycling."
- Michael J. Mercer