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The Pros (and Cons) of Recycling's Impact on the Environment

written by: Amy Carson•edited by: Laurie Patsalides•updated: 7/8/2010

How does recycling affect the environment? What are the positive and negative effects of recycling on the environment? Wait - there are negatives from recycling? Do the questions ever stop? Yes. The questions and the answers are here.

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    Environmental Affects

    Recycling affects the environment in a number of ways, mostly positive. Surprisingly, recycling has a few potential negative effects as well. This article will talk about the positive and the negative effects of recycling on the environment, and how to optimize your own recycling efforts.

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    Positive Effects of Recycling on the Environment

    Recycling saves energy. Using recycled material when making plastics and paper uses less energy than producing them from virgin, new materials.

    Recycling reduces pollution.

    Recycling reduces the amount of waste put into landfills. Landfills are potentially hazardous due to the concentration of non-biodegradable items that slowly leach toxic chemicals into the surrounding garbage in the landfill. In states with "bottle bills" (laws that require a five- or ten-cent deposit on bottled drinks) such as California and Michigan, it's estimated that the bottle bills have reduced the respective states' wastestream by five to eight percent alone.

    Recycling saves money.

    This is true both for manufacturers and consumers. For manufacturers, recycled source materials may be cheaper than virgin ones. Consumers save through passed-along savings and through sought-after recyclables that companies are willing to pay for, such as aluminum and copper. Better still, reusing objects saves money.

    Recycling improves the soil.

    Composting or simply mulching organic waste such as lawn clippings, leaves, and kitchen scraps keeps them out of a landfill, but the benefits are even greater. The carbon, nitrogen, and other nutrients inherent in organic waste enriches the soil, encouraging beneficial organisms and reducing the need for artificial fertilizers or other soil amendments.

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    Negative Effects of Recycling on the Environment

    Recycling mostly affects the environment in positive ways, but there are some downsides to recycling.

    Recycling debris.

    Debris from the activity of collecting and sorting the recycling can contain hazardous chemicals and be dangerous to recycling workers. You can reduce this negative effect of recycling by carefully sorting your recyclables and making sure not to include dangerous items.

    Paper recycling isn't quite as great as it seems.

    Paper recycling is more expensive than other recycling, and bleaching is a common process used to make the recycled paper as bright as virgin papers. Unfortunately, bleaching uses harmful chemicals. Consumers can look for unbleached recycled papers to avoid this problem.

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    Plastic recycling is complicated.

    There are so many varieties of plastic that manufacturers have developed a one to seven labeling system for plastics.

    Some varieties of plastics are impossible or nearly impossible to recycle, most areas only accept two of the seven kinds of plastic for recycling, and a couple varieties leach harmful chemicals into the air over time.

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    Reduce, Reuse, Recycle to Positively Affect the Environment

    You can affect the environment directly and positively by not only recycling, but also by practicing mindful shopping and by thinking about what you'll be using something for before and after you buy it. Recycling is the "last resort" of the cycle.

    Reducing consumption is the step with the most impact, because items not consumed never wind up in the waste cycle at all. Buy less stuff. Use less stuff. Choose options that use less packaging that will become waste. "Reduce" even affects the environment in our transportation choices: reduce driving in favor of walking, biking, or public transportation when possible. Making a trip by train has a tiny fraction of the carbon footprint left by a trip by airplane. Keep these concepts in mind when planning shopping and travel, and you will find it becoming easier and easier over time to reduce consumption.

    Reusing items is the second most important concept. It's better to find a new use for an old item than to put it into the recycling bin. There are many ways to reuse: donate items you don't want to charity or have a yard sale; repurpose one thing to another use (such as making a wine cork corkboard); buy refill sizes and reuse current bottles for soap dispensing etc. rather than new bottles.

    Recycling affects the environment in many ways, both positive and negative. Each one of us can have an impact on improving the environment and making a conscious effort to reduce, reuse, and recycle in order to have a positive effect on the environment.