Is Recycling Really As Important As We Think It Is?

Olivia Gilbert, Columnist

For most us, recycling is second nature. The three-R chant of reduce, reuse, recycle has been ingrained in us since kindergarten, when the little blue bin with white arrows sat in the corner of the classroom like a shrine. Recycling, we were taught, is an indisputable public good, the environmental equivalent of the Golden Rule. It will save the planet. The impact of these habits and values instilled in us from an early age is evident here at Whitman, where twice in the past week I’ve witnessed students admonishing professors for various sins of paper waste.

“Couldn’t you have printed that double-sided?” One student said to a professor whose notes, printed single-sided, were laid out on the table in front of him.

A few days later, another student in a different class requested that the professor to upload our class material to CLEo, the school’s online portal, rather than printing copies. The professor compromised, agreeing to allow those students who preferred not to have a physical copy to sign their names on a list.

These incidents prove that Whitman students care about conserving resources. But they also speak to our alarming cultural tendency to over-emphasize the benefits of recycling in favor of more impactful (and often less glamorous) environmental actions, like eating less meat or opting to bike or walk over driving.

While recycling helps counter the throwaway culture of consumerism, in terms of reducing the nation’s carbon footprint, the efficacy of recycling depends on what’s being recycled.

According to EPA official J. Winston Porter in John Tierney’s New York Times article “The Reign of Recycling,” recycling everything isn’t beneficial for the environment.

“It makes sense to recycle commercial cardboard and some paper, as well as selected metals and plastics,” he says. “But other materials rarely make sense, including food waste and other compostables.”

Our political leaders, however, are all too eager to perpetuate the myth that the more we recycle, the better. Forward-thinking cities like Seattle and San Francisco have both adopted zero-waste policies. New York City’s Mayor Bill De Blasio recently announced the city is joining the movement, championing recycling as “the way of the future if we’re going to save our earth.”

Far from the environmental panacea De Blasio depicts it as, recycling is effective only in a limited sense.

“The zero-waste goal makes no sense at all,” said Porter. “It’s very expensive with almost no real environmental benefit.”

The article goes on:

“According to the EPA’s estimates, virtually all the greenhouse benefits—more than 90 percent—come from just a few materials: paper, cardboard, and metals like the aluminum in soda cans.”

Recycling one ton of metal or paper saves three tons of CO2, while recycling other materials, like plastic and glass, have a much smaller payoff. Compare that to the 3,000 pounds of CO2 potentially saved each year simply by not consuming meat.

“Once you exclude paper products and metals, the total annual savings in the United States from recycling everything else in municipal trash—plastics, glass, food, yard trimmings, textiles, rubber, leather—is only two-tenths of 1 percent of America’s carbon footprint.”

It’s easy to ask a professor to print double-sided. In many places, and certainly at Whitman, it’s easy to recycle. As citizens, Whitman students, and future leaders, we cannot afford to merely follow the status quo and tell ourselves we are saving the world because we compost and sort paper from plastic. If we are to have any hope of leaving behind a habitable world for future generations, we need to make lifestyle changes that are truly environmentally impactful—and we need to be brave enough to spread the word.