Does recycling really make a difference?

Getty Images / Dougal Waters

Dear Planet Green,

I know we're all supposed to recycle, but does it really make a difference?


--Dubious in Dubuque

Good question! While it can be tricky to contextualize the real impact of dropping a few cans and bottles into the blue bin, your recycling really does make a big difference.


Benefits of recycling aluminum

First of all, as with many things in this world, it just takes more -- more resources, more energy -- to make new things than to recycle old things. Consider that 20 recycled cans can be made with the energy needed to produce just one single can using virgin materials. How does that add up in your life? Recycling one aluminum can saves enough energy to keep a 100-watt bulb burning for almost four hours or run your television for three hours. And, tossing a single aluminum can in the garbage wastes as much energy as pouring out half of that can?s volume of gasoline.

If energy savings aren't your thing, it turns out the recycling can also have significant social benefits, too. Consider the Cans for Habitat program, a national partnership between the Aluminum Association and Habitat for Humanity, where aluminum cans are recycled through a network of nationwide drop-off locations to raise money for Habitat for Humanity to build quality, affordable housing for, and with, low-income families.


Benefits of recycling glass

Glass is one of the most popular materials recycled, because of its raw material composition -- mostly sand -- and because it can be recycled over and over again without degrading in quality. In fact, recycled glass is the main ingredient in making "new" glass, and an estimated 80 percent of recovered glass containers are made into new glass bottles.

In addition to the recycled bottles going to a good place -- new bottles -- there is significant environmental savings to realize, too. Every 20 glass bottles you recycle will save two pounds of carbon emissions; that adds up to 700 pounds of carbon emissions -- the equivalent savings of line-drying your laundry for six months -- saved per ton of glass that's melted down.


Recycling: By the numbers

Okay, so that's the story behind just two materials; how do they all add up? Well, each pound of mixed municipal solid waste (MSW) that you recycle is not only a pound saved from many years in a landfill, but saves 2.5 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions. Considering that the average person recycles (or composts) 1.5 pounds of MSW every day, it can really add up; every ton of recycled MSW saves 2.27 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

And it doesn't stop there. As stated above, on average, we recycle about 1.5 out of 4.5 pounds of MSW each day -- about one-third of our waste. If we get that number closer to 50 percent, or half of our waste recycled, we'd save 2,400 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per household each year.


So, for any other dubious readers, please understand: Yes, it makes a difference when you recycle. That said, it alone certainly isn't enough to keep your green planet turning 'round. It's a great start, but it's terribly important to not be content with stopping there. Buy green power for your home, be more conscious about how you fly, and become a weekday vegetarian, and you'll have cut your carbon footprint in half, just like that. Recycling is good; living green -- your electricity, your transportation, your food -- is even better.

Have a green dilemma or question for Planet Green? Please send questions to askplanetgreen [at] gmail [dot] com. (Questions may be edited for publication.)