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Contrary to popular belief, recycling practices have been around for centuries. In fact, some of the earliest forms of recycling date back to 1031 in Japan with the reuse of waste paper. It wasn’t until the industrial age that people dropped recycling ; the mass production of goods sold at low-cost made it easier for people to get rid of old things and purchase new ones. Recently, the concept of recycling has resurfaced due to the increasing concern with the climate crisis. For instance, the Great Pacific garbage patch – a floating accumulation of human trash in the Pacific ocean- is said to be today twice the size of Texas. Would all these materials end up in the ocean if we had been recycling? Nowadays, we are presented with the option to do so with the large availability of recycling bins for different materials. Personally, I recycle items when given the chance, however, I have never given a second thought to the process that goes behind it. Like most people, I have been taught that recycling is an eco-friendly practice and by doing it I would be “saving the planet”. Questioning my practices, I have chosen to explore this topic further, hence the question: Could recycling actually be a harmful practice in response to the environmental crisis? Although the answer may seem evident, this topic has sparked debate among different groups of people: from young teens and environmental scientists to politicians and large corporations. In fact, there have been attempts to put an end to landfilling bans in two states in the U.S. However, these attempts were unsuccessful due to the intervention of recycling organizations.
The first article I came across was a New York Times cover story entitled “Recycling Is Garbage” in which John Tierny (1996) argues that recycling is “America’s most wasteful activity”(Tierny, 1996, p.1). The primary reason I selected this piece is due to the number of different recycling myths the author chose to respond to. He creatively begins his article with an anecdote in which he describes a lesson third graders have about recycling. These children were asked to collect trash around their school and separate the recyclable materials from the rest. As a result, they found that only two items from the pile could be recycled. Tierney (1996) points out that with this act of collecting and sorting, the children added more to the trash by using plastic bags and gloves to gather the materials. He later claims that journalists are to blame in creating a false alarm about there being no more room in landfills and therefore contributing to the rise in recycling practices. According to the New York Times writer, the cheapest and easiest way to get rid of garbage is by burying it in environmentally safe landfills. However, what further captured my attention was that he held the public accountable for the spread of recycling as this practice was seen as a form of “moral redemption” (Tierny, 1996, p.2). This meant that people felt emotionally better and less guilty knowing the excess amount of products they buy would just be recycled. Furthermore, Tierney (1996) controversially states that plastic packaging actually reduces waste and saves resources. He reveals that plastic packaged foods are less susceptible to spoilage and therefore are less likely to be thrown away compared to food that is bought in bulk. He also adds that due to their light packaging, little energy goes into their production and transportation. Finally, he argues that paper is an agricultural product and that even though many trees have been cut down, more tress will most likely be planted at their place.
After examining the author’s claims, I noticed that he failed to mention a number of things in his observations. First of all, he compares the benefits of buying plastic packaged food over buying in bulk but does not include any remarks about the possibility of using reusable bags, purchasing food in reduced quantities or even composting which is a form of food recycling . In addition, he evaluates the best waste management solution based on cost and simplicity – the use of landfills- and not based on what is best for the environment. Moreover, when talking about paper, he does not support his facts with numerical values. He simply assumes more trees will be planted but disregards the act of recycling used paper altogether. Nevertheless, the journalist’s findings about the feeling people get after recycling lead me to conduct more research on the behavioral patterns linked to recycling.
For this next step of my exploration, I chose to focus on a research report written by Jesse R. Catlin and Yitong Wang (2012) published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology. I chose this article in particular because of the simplicity of their experiment and the striking results they found. In “ Recycling gone bad: When the option to recycle increases consumption” the authors conduct two experiments in which they test whether or not the possibility to recycle affects people’s consumption. To do so, they informed 44 undergraduates that they had to test out a new brand of scissors by cutting regular shapes out of paper. The students were assigned to one of two rooms at random. While the first room contained a recycling bin as well as a regular trash can, the second only contained one trash can and no recycling bin. In addition, no specifications were given about the number of papers they should use or the size of the shapes on purpose. To my surprise, they found that those that were in the presence of a recycling bin used more paper than those who were not presented with the option. Consequently, this meant that recycling actually lead to overconsumption of resources and contributed in people feeling less guilty about consuming more when they could just recycle whatever they used. To further their understanding, the authors conducted a second similar experiment in a men’s bathroom. This time they collected data on the amount of paper hand towels used on a daily basis for a period of fifteen days in the absence of a recycling bin and then did the same thing for another fifteen days in the presence of one near the sinks. Again, Catlin and Wang (2012) found similar results to the previous experiment : people used 0.5 more paper towels per person when given the option to recycle.
In agreement with Tierny (1996), the authors of this study found that people recycled “ as a means to assuage negative emotions such as guilt that may be associated with wasting resources” (Catlin and Wang, 2012, p.7). Catlin and Wang (2012) noticed that people were only informed about the benefits of recycling and not its costs in terms of energy or water. In contrast with Tierny (1996), the authors of this study do not suggest that recycling should be avoided but instead people should be taught that recycling is a temporary solution while reducing would be more advisable. Although the act of conducting two experiments added credibility to the authors’s findings, I find that the results of this study were weakened by the fact that university students were the only ones under observation. Furthermore, the authors admit that they particularly focused on paper items; this indicates that the results of this study could have been different if other materials were also included. Finally, since the two previous articles I read were centered on the negative impacts of recycling, I realized I needed to dig deeper to see whether recycling had any benefits at all.
The final article I chose to examine, “In defense of recycling”, was published in The Johns Hopkins University Press and written by Allen Hershkowitz (1998) in response to anti environmental claims, including those that were made by Tierny (1996). First, the author begins by stating facts about the United States being “ the largest generator of wastes”(Hershkowitz, 1998, p.4) as well as the nation with the highest consumption of water and energy. This serves as the reason as to why recycling should be implemented to minimize these environmental issues and the costs they give rise to. According to Hershkowitz (1998), recycling preserves natural resources, saves energy, reduces the effects of pollution caused by producing items from raw material, creates jobs, and cuts down pollution produced from the technologies related to landfilling and incineration. The author goes on to admit that not all municipal waste materials are recyclable. However, he continues to say that “ a much higher percentage of materials now discarded in the U.S, waste stream can be recycled” (Hershkowitz, 1998, p.7), and this provides a greater benefit to the environment when products are made out of recycled material instead of virgin raw resources. Furthermore, he shuts down inaccurate arguments made by anti environmentalists, such as recycling requires more energy than it saves, landfills cause no harm to the environment or that recycling costs more than landfilling. Hershkowitz (1998) then highlights an important fact that had not crossed my mind when examining the arguments Tierny (1996) had presented on how little energy goes into the production and transportation of plastic-packaged goods. Hershkowitz (1998) states “ recycling materials reduces the need to extract, process, refine, transport timber, crude petroleum […] recycling lessens the toxic air emissions […] that these manufacturing processes create”(Hershkowitz, 1998, p.9).
Prior to reading this article, I thought the arguments provided by Tierney (1996) were supported by strong evidence. However, the information put forth by Hershkowitz (1998) shows that some of his points, although held some truth, were incomplete. For instance, he had completely shut down the idea of recycling and promoted the use of plastic packaging since it was lighter to transport, therefore contributing to reduced amount of toxic gas emissions. Although this may be true, he did not take into account the process that goes into producing materials from raw resources as did Hershkowitz (1998) . In addition, the author of this article argues that children must be taught the value of recycling at school or via their parents, because as they do so they learn to be aware of their responsibilities towards themselves and towards others. This point is in agreement with the conclusion Catlin and Wang (2012) drew concerning how people must be educated and given more information about what goes into recycling.
Finally, I believe that the information I have found is not sufficient to be able to make a reasonable conclusion concerning the effectiveness of recycling in fighting off the climate crisis. Even though the last article I have studied portrayed the many benefits of recycling all the while denying some false claims I had previously taken as truths, it did not highlight the fact that recycling remains a wasteful activity in our societies as proven by the authors of the second article; people choose to recycle and use more materials rather than reduce their consumption. This leads me to think that I must to conduct additional research and dig deeper into what drives people to waste more materials when the option to recycle is available and whether recycling would be considered effective if people did not increase their consumption when recycling.
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