Recycling revisited

November 12, 1997|By Christopher Douglass

SATURDAY marks the inaugural America Recycles Day. Its theme, ''Keep Recycling Working: Buy Recycled,'' urges Americans to do more than just recycle plastic bottles, aluminum cans and newspapers. It calls on us to help the environment with our purchases, too. But will buying recycled really help the environment?

If a used product goes to the recycling bin instead of the wastebasket, it goes through a long process before it returns to use. It's separated from other recyclables and taken to a recycling facility, sometimes hundreds of miles away. There, the product is subjected to chemicals for cleansing and decontamination. It then uses a lot of energy to reshape it into a form that manufacturers can use.

Cans for cash

Sometimes recycling saves resources, sometimes it doesn't. Great success has come from recycling aluminum cans because it does save resources. Begun as an effort to save costs by Reynolds Aluminum in 1968, today Americans recycle 63 percent of their aluminum cans. Why?

Because people can make money collecting cans, and aluminum companies save on mining costs.

Most other commodities don't work as well. With newspapers, for instance, recycling is much more difficult. Newspapers are hard to clean. They are easily contaminated while being used and expensive to de-ink. They must be cleansed, bleached and reduced to pulp before they can be used again. The sludge that results from this process often must be deposited in a landfill and can sometimes be toxic. In addition, every time pulp goes through this process, its fibers lose strength.

Glass containers and plastic packaging are also questionable recyclables. Though needing little cleansing and decontaminating, glass containers are expensive to transport because they break easily. Plastic packaging is much cheaper to produce from raw materials than to gather and send back to recycling facilities. That is why only 10 percent of plastic packaging is recycled each year.

What is a well-meaning consumer to do? Use the price system. The prices paid for recycled newspapers, tin cans, aluminum, glass and plastics are a good estimation of how much energy and resources went into that product. If the price for recycled materials does not cover the cost of collecting, cleansing and melting down recyclables, then resources like gasoline and electricity are probably being wasted by recycling.

Another clue is what manufacturers do. Paper producers, bottling plants and fast food chains are keenly aware of price and performance differences in the materials they use. They will buy recycled goods if recycled materials can stand up, like aluminum cans do, to consumer standards for cost, durability and use. Recycling is an important part of managing America's waste. But it is only useful for some items in some areas of the country. Recycling does not save resources for all items in all areas of the country.

On America Recycles Day, remember that conserving natural resources sometimes means, ''Don't Recycle.'' Simplistic ideas like ''Buy Recycled'' may waste more resources than they save.

Christopher Douglass is the John M. Olin Fellow in Public Policy at the Center for the Study of American Business at Washington University in St. Louis.

Pub Date: 11/12/97

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