A triangle made of three arrows that connect in an endless cycle: It’s a simple shape that you’ve seen a thousand times. Though the symbol is simple, it stands for a lot.
What is recycling and why should you do it? To answer that, we must educate ourselves on what it means to recycle, how it benefits the environment, and how it positively impacts our economy.
Recycling, at its most basic level, is the process of turning waste into something that is new and useful again.* Aluminum cans might find a second life as a new can or be reborn in another form entirely, like a bicycle or the wing of an airplane. Plastic bottles may reincarnate as the carpet underneath your feet or your favorite fleece jacket. Glass jars might turn into new jars back on the shelf, or insulation in your home, or reflective beads on the road keeping us safe driving at night. Recycled office paper might become part of an Amazon box, a newspaper, or even a roll of toilet paper (much more eco-friendly than cutting down pristine forests for our tissue!).
The lifecycle of plastic, paper, aluminum, steel, glass, electronics, and numerous other materials should not end when their current role ends. Something to think about next time you finish using just about anything, right?
Whenever you send something that isn’t useful anymore in its current form in the right direction for a new use—instead of to a dump—you are singlehandedly helping to keep our land and water clean, curb emissions, and slow climate change. You’re helping manufacturers “mine the urban forest” for the materials to make new products so those products can be made at much lower cost to the planet. You’re also reducing the amount of waste accumulated in local landfills and in our rivers, lakes, and oceans. This is vitally important, given that waste affects our air quality as well as our drinking water. In addition to posing a hazard of contaminating a community’s groundwater supplies, landfills release a mixture of dangerous gases into the air as the waste decays and reacts to the exposure of foreign elements. Among these gases is methane, a greenhouse gas that inflicts long-term damage by absorbing energy and slowing the rate at which the energy escapes to space, thereby contributing to warming the Earth. Trash isn’t harmless. With proper disposal of our waste, diverting what we can from going to the dump, we help keep our atmosphere and water healthy and clean for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren.
We’ve touched on what is commonly known about the positive environmental impacts of recycling. What is often not as well understood is the fact that recycling is also very beneficial to our economy. For cities that have to pay by the ton for their landfill usage, recycling can reduce taxpayer-funded municipal budgets by millions of dollars. Recycling helps create jobs, as well as reduces the cost and need of new materials. Recycling is more labor-intensive than waste management, and therefore requires a larger workforce. Economic analysis shows that recycling can generate three times as much revenue per ton as landfill disposal and almost six times as many jobs. As the number of people who recycle increases, the demand for collectors, plant workers, and technicians continues to grow.
Georgia is one of the top states in the nation for recycling markets. We’ve got thriving paper mills using recycled paper and a carpet industry that reuses one-third of the plastic bottles recycled in North America. We’re home to companies like Novelis, the world’s largest recycler of aluminum, and a glass recycling plant owned by Strategic Materials, North America’s largest glass recycler. And we can’t forget the secondhand market—all the Goodwills, Salvation Armies, antiques shops, and flea markets throughout the state that do business by reusing and “recycling” goods. At least 23,000 Georgians are employed in jobs related to recycling.
As a county, as a state, and as a country, we still have a lot of opportunity to take this potential even further. In its report The State of Curbside Recycling in 2020, the Recycling Partnership shared that out of 37.4 million tons available to be recycled nationwide, 20 million tons are thrown in the trash due to lack of recycling access and participation. If these 20 million tons were recycled, it would:
– Generate 370,000 full-time equivalent jobs
– Reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 96 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent
– Conserve an annual energy equivalent of 154 million barrels of oil
– Achieve the equivalent of taking more than 20 million cars off U.S. highways
Separating your waste into recycling might seem like an isolated action with a tiny impact. Its impact is much greater than you know. Don’t forget, it just takes one person to create change. You can be that person.
*Notice the definition of recycling refers to what we do with things that are at the end of their life, that are waste. Lots of things that end up in our recycling bin have life left in them in the form they’re already in. You might have just wanted the soup inside the can or the widget inside the Amazon box, but hey, now you own the can and the box too — why not find creative ways to use them and really get bang for your buck? Recycling is a last resort. Always consider reusing or upcycling items before recycling them!