When most Americans think of recycling, they think of buying plastic, paper, glass and canned goods. Then they think about using those goods, throwing them into a container of some sort and then hauling that container to the curb once a week, and that’s about the end of the thought process. While this is certainly a crucial step in the recycling process, it’s far from the complete process. We as consumers don’t really “recycle,” if we want to get technical about the definition. We simply collect material to be recycled. The process of actually breaking down and redistributing material for future use is a much larger and far more complex one than you might realize.
One of most crucial yet overlooked steps in global recycling is figuring out where to send scrap material. Once you throw Sunday’s Budweiser can and the sports section into the recycle bin you may not worry about it anymore, but somewhere, someone has a job to figure out who and where in the world can benefit from your old newspaper the most. Where are the most plentiful and profitable paper mills located? What are the costs associated with shipping it there? What are the environmental impacts associated with that particular paper mill? Are you simply doing one good green deed by recycling only to promote pollution in another part of the world because the factory has no standards when it comes to environmental protection?
If you really dig into researching “global recycling” you realize that the poorer the country, the more of a business it actually is (and it can be quite a lucrative one, at that). For developed countries, like the U.S., recycling is an environmental need, not a business. It’s certainly not a bad way to look at it. Recycling consumes less energy and resources than manufacturing a new one. Remember that Budweiser you drank while reading the sports section back in the second paragraph? Well, making a new can from your recycled one uses about 92% less energy than manufacturing one from scratch. That’s great, but nobody would bother with it if there wasn’t some financial initiative in it.
That’s where the global recycling business comes in, and it’s 100% dependent on the fact that humans are first and foremost consumers, not recyclers. We buy stuff, we use that stuff, we put some of that stuff on the curb and eventually some of that stuff gets recycled so we can buy it again. Ultimately, our greatest impact on the environment can be achieved by not only recycling, but also reducing how much material we use, and reusing what we can before we take that weekly walk to the curb.