Choosing to Recycle - Because It Pays

By Horrigan, Alice | E Magazine, March-April 1997 | Go to article overview
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Choosing to Recycle - Because It Pays


Horrigan, Alice, E Magazine


Recycled material isn't just in Greenpeace backpacks anymore - it's in many of the everyday products we buy at the mall and supermarket. Plastics, metals and glass now routinely take a second - or even third - trip through our consumer society. These products often cost the same or less to produce than the same thing made from virgin sources. Corporate America is learning that recycling pays.

In some cases, such as in the recycled paper industry, recycling plants are more modern and efficient, consuming less water and polluting less, than their virgin-source counterparts. Paper recycling helps protect American forests. Although U.S. hardwood forests now are being replaced at a faster pace than they are being cut, much of this timber is not available for commercial use. Perhaps more important, the replacement forests are mono-culture tree plantations, not biologically diverse ecosystems - the lack of which can cause unforeseeable environmental problems. "Paper recycling cuts down on the amount of wood needed from virgin sources," says Richard Hoppe, vice president for conservation of The Wilderness Society. "There are fewer trees cut, and less pressure to cut trees in public forests."

The virgin pulp and paper industry generates significant air and water pollutants, as well as toxic wastes, which creates a cleanup problem for industry. Virgin paper mills also use hundreds of corrosive and hazardous substances, compared to just dozens at paper recycling plants, and that fact has led to an explosion in new construction. Some 45 recycled paper mills have been voluntarily built or expanded in the 1990s, and $10 billion in new investments are being committed.

In New York City, two paper recycling plants that may serve as a model for the rest of the country (one the product of a consortium that includes the Natural Resources Defense Council) are presently under construction. Total investment exceeds $750 million, and will result in the creation of thousands of new jobs. (In contrast, landfills produce the fewest jobs of any waste management option.)

Newsprint is another recycling success story. Without any enforced mandates, newspapers like The New York Times have voluntarily agreed to increase their recycled newsprint purchases. The Los Angeles Times is largely recycled paper. The newsprint that local publishers buy - much of which comes from Quebec - will now have to travel fewer miles to its destination, reducing the use of fossil fuels. And the paper will cost no more - or even less - than newsprint created from virgin sources. The plants will also use less water per ton of manufactured product than virgin newsprint mills use.

The Future Is...Recycled Plastic

An increasing number of recycled plastic products, meanwhile, are becoming available on store shelves. Buyers may or may not be aware of their recycled content. According to Evelyn Haught, director of communications for the Institute of Scrap Recycling (ISR) in Washington, D.C., an average of 450,000 tons of beverage containers have been recycled over the past 10 years for everything from flower pots to fences.

"You can go into any Wal-Mart and pick up a doormat and discover it's made of recycled plastic," says Haught.

Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) is recycled from beverage containers and is used for insulation in jackets and sleeping bags, carpets and carpet matting, industrial paints and paint brushes, scouring pads, auto parts, even landfill liners. "PET cleans well and is very durable," says Haught.

Despite its cost-effectiveness, however, PET soda bottle recycling declined dramatically in 1995, dropping to 41 percent from a record high of 57 percent in 1994. According to the American Plastics Council, more than 741 million pounds of PET bottles ended up in landfills in 1995 - one third more than in 1989.

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