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Yesterday was America Recycles Day – the latest manifestation of what is not a new idea – in fact at its very core it is an extremely old idea:  take something old and reuse it to make it something new again. Industrial scale recycling like we have today didn’t begin until the 1970’s. In 1980 there was only one curbside recycling program in the United States. Today, there are over 10,000. And the statistics that followed the recycling craze statistics are really shocking. (photo: americarecyclesday.org)

  • There are the good:
    Recycling saves energy and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Recycling a single aluminum can saves enough energy to power a TV for three hours. Recycling a stack of newspapers three feet high saves one tree.
    Making glass from recycled materials cuts related water pollution by 50%
  • And there are the bad:
    Every three months we throw away enough aluminum foil to rebuild the entire US commercial air fleet.
    Americans throw enough office paper away each year to build a 12 foot high wall of paper from NY to Seattle.
    Only about 6.8% of the total plastic used in the US actually can be recycled.

There are also proponents and opponents. Opponents to recycling you ask?  Yes, in fact they do exist, and their arguments aren’t as crazy as you might think. Penn and Teller featured recycling on their show “Bullshit.”  Clemson University professor of economics Daniel K. Benjamin published “Eight Great Myths of Recycling” in 2003. A paper in Environmental Health Perspectives from 1995 also addresses some of the problems with recycling.

So are they right?  Yes and no. Our current recycling system is flawed; this is true. And we should focus more on the first and most important R: Reducing.  But push come to shove, most of you already recycle, and you’re probably not going to stop because a fat man and a mute tell you to – which is a good thing. What you should do is think critically about the products you’re buying and recycling. Glass can be recycled and indefinite number of times and never wears out. Recycling one glass jar saves enough electricity to light a conventional 60 watt bulb for 4 hours, and an 11 watt CFL bulb for 20 hours.  Plastics are actually the hardest to recycle. Aside from clear plastic bottles (which hopefully you’re not buying for a multitude of reasons) almost all other plastics (that yogurt cup, milk jug, plastic packaging that your headphones or scissors or pens came in) can’t actually be recycled.  So if you can buy glass rather than plastic, do! (3r graphic: nrdc)

Another huge recycling sector to really think about today is your e-waste. Computers, cell phones, batteries, television and other electronic devices are made with harmful materials. Most of those items that you’re getting rid of can probably be repaired or used by someone else – when you upgrade your phone or computer or television it’s probably not broken beyond repair. If you’re not sure where to take your e-waste, check out E-cycling Central and find a location.

So now that I’ve doom-and-gloomed you into submission, I hope you had a happy and productive America Recycles Day! Remember that recycling is just one of the three R’s, and many argue it’s the least important.  Reduce and reuse don’t have their own special days, but they should! So go forth and Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!

Related: more recycling related posts on The Alternative Consumer