Why Recycling Matters
There are numerous reasons why the City of Fort Collins encourages citizens and businesses to recycle. They include a broad range of environmental stewardship concerns, as well as practical interest in local economic opportunities and development, including: cost savings, extended landfill lifespans, resource conservation, energy conservation, economic development, pollution prevention, greenhouse gas emissions reductions, and fostering a sense of community involvement and responsibility.
1. Cost Savings
Nationally, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates about 30% of the waste stream gets diverted from landfill disposal (unfortunately, it's much lower in Colorado), but there is still a lot that is not getting recycled - meaning money and resources that are getting wasted - as illustrated in Table 1 [note 1].
Although the market for recyclables has historically been erratic, rapid industrial development in nations like China has caused prices to improve for many commodities. The market is so strong that in many cases, demand exceeds the supply currently provided by the American public [note 2].
In Fort Collins, it saves money on household trash bills to recycle, especially with the recent addition of cardboard and paperboard to curbside bins. By "right-sizing" their trash container to best fit their households, residents who recycle are able to save money in avoided trash charges through the city's "pay as you throw" system. And businesses are learning the same lesson, that recycling and reducing waste can improve their "bottom line" - thousands of U.S. companies have saved millions of dollars through their voluntary recycling programs. Many businesses are not yet recycling in Fort Collins, which represents a significant opportunity for improvement. (Conducting waste assessments of a business' operations is a good first step; by taking a close look at their waste management system, it's possible to decide what could be changed or eliminated in an effort to reduce waste being produced by the business.)
Well-run recycling programs cost less to operate than waste collection, landfilling, and incinerations. Loveland has discovered that the municipal garbage utility's costs to recycle are almost $40 per ton less than the cost to landfill trash, while Denver's recycling programs saved about $200,000 in landfill costs in 2004 and brought in nearly $1 million from the sale of recyclables. Unlike many public services, recycling does function within the market economy, and quite successfully.
2. Extend Landfill Lifespans
As regulations have become more rigorous, the number of permitted landfills in the United States has dropped by 78% since 1988 [note 3]. New landfills are much larger than in the past, and more controversial to build because few people are willing to live in the vicinity of a mega-landfill.
While the Larimer County landfill currently is expected to last another 15-19 years (or longer, depending on how successful we are at diverting waste), once it does need to be replaced, a new one will cost taxpayers over $17 million to construct.
3. Conserve Resources
Recovered paper currently accounts for 37 percent of the paper industry’s fiber needs [note 5]. Without recycling, this material would come from trees; every ton of newspaper is the equivalent of 12 trees, and every ton of office paper is the equivalent of 24 trees. When one ton of steel is recycled, 2,500 pounds of iron ore, 1,400 pounds of coal, and 120 pounds of limestone are conserved. Recycling a ton of paper saves 7,000 gallons of water.
Tree farms and reclaimed mines are not ecologically equivalent to natural forests and ecosystems. Recycling prevents natural habitat destruction, loss of biodiversity, and soil erosion associated with logging and mining.
It is not an exaggeration to say that recycling helps ease demand for certain resources that are being extracted in emerging nations under war-torn, repressive governments. For example, a mineral called Tantalum - better known as “coltan” - is used to produce capacitors in electronic devices, especially cell phones (from which it can be recycled). Coltan mining is contributing to policitical tension between Congo and Rwanda, as well as loss of habitat for the threatened Eastern Lowland Gorilla. Smuggled coltan has been implicated as a major source of income for the military occupation of Congo.
4. Conserve Energy
Recycling aluminum saves the nation 95 % of the energy that would have been needed to make new aluminum from ore: one aluminum can saves enough electricity to light a 100-watt bulb for 3½ hours. It takes 60% less energy to recycle steel than it does to make it from raw materials. Making recycled newspaper saves 40%, recycled plastics 70%, and recycled glass 40%.
The EPA reported that in 2000, recycling resulted in an annual energy savings equal to the amount of energy used in 6 million homes - over 660 trillion BTU’s - and expected that to rise to 900 trillion BTUs in 2005.
The public sector's investment in local recycling programs pays great dividends by creating private sector jobs. For every job collecting recyclables, there are 26 jobs in processing the materials and manufacturing them into new products [note 8].
As an example of how efficiently the salvage market functions, a recycled aluminum beverage can returns to the grocer's shelf as a new, filled can in as few as 60 days after collection. The steel industry recycles nearly 19 billion cans into new products each year, or about 600 cans per second.
6. Prevent Pollution
In the U.S., processing minerals contributes almost half of all reported toxic emissions from industry, sending 1.5 million tons of pollution into the air and water each year. Recycling can significantly reduce these emissions [note 10].
Landfills can be major sources of groundwater pollution if watery "leachate" escapes through underlying clay or plastic linings. Leachate from municipal landfills is similar in composition to that of hazardous waste landfills and in fact, 20% of the sites on the Superfund list (the nation's most hazardous sites) are solid waste landfills.
Consumer electronics are creating a growing source of pollution, constituting 40% of the lead found in landfills. The National Safety Council predicts that in the U.S. between as many as 680 million computers will become obsolete within the next few years; in addition to 1 billion pounds of lead, this waste will contain more than 4 billion pounds of plastic, 1.9 million pounds of cadmium, 1.2 million pounds of chromium, and nearly 400,000 pounds of mercury [note11].
7. Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions
For every 6 tons of recycled container glass used, 1 ton of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, is reduced. Recycling one ton of aluminum is equivalent to not releasing 13 tons of carbon dioxide into the air [note 13].
8. Engender a Sense of Community Involvement and Responsibility
Recycling is so popular because the American public wants to do it, and they expect to be able to do it. Perhaps it is because of the curriculum about the value of recycling that has been taught to children, or has to do with people's awareness of their relationship to others and their responsibilities to them. Regardless, recycling is an important way that mainstream America expresses commitment to the environment, through minor adjustments to its daily trash disposal habits, shopping choices, and product consumption.
Note 1: Curbside Value Partnership: www.recyclecurbside.org
Note 3: Environmental Protection Agency, Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the U.S.: Facts and Figures for 2003 www.epa.gov/msw/msw99.htm
Note 4: Environmental Protection Agency, Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the U.S.: Facts and Figures for 2003 www.epa.gov/msw/msw99.htm
Note 6: National Recycling Coalition, “US Recycling Economic Information Study, Final Report,” prepared by R.W. Beck Inc., July 2001 www.nrc-recycle.org/resources/rei/docs/fullreireport.pdf.
Note 11: Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, “Fourth Annual Computer Report Card,” January 9, 2003 www.svtc.org/cleancc/pubs/2002report.htm
Note 12: EPA, 1996 www.nrdc.org/cities/recycling/recyc/chap2.asp
Note 13: Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, “Rethinking Recycling: An Oregon Waste Reduction Curriculum,” 2001 www.deq.state.or.us/wmc/solwaste/rethinkrecyc/rethinkrecyc.html
Note 15: Fort Collins, CO Garbage and Recycling Survey , December 2005 by Corona Research, available at www.fcgov.com/talkingtrash/pdf/ft_collins_garbage_recycling_survey_2005-1222_final.pdf