Solid-waste recycling provides many environmental benefits including a reduction in landfill waste and the generation of new materials for manufacturing. As with any industrial practice, it also carries some disadvantages. Energy is still needed to transport recyclables and prepare them for their next use.
Human Health Risks
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that solid waste generation reached 254 million tons in 2007. Of that amount, about 33.4 percent of the municipal solid waste was recycled or about 63.3 million tons. Paper and cardboard accounted for nearly one-third of total waste generation, with yard waste coming in a distant second at 12.8 percent.
The process of recycling poses health risks for sanitation workers. Disposal of mercury-containing products such as compact fluorescent bulbs can expose workers to unsafe levels of mercury. Mercury exposure can cause neurological damage in developing fetuses. Other health risks include fumes from hazardous waste products such as solvents and petroleum products. The longer a worker is exposed to these toxins, the greater the health risk. Some waste management services may not accept certain hazardous materials in order to protect their staff.
Some individuals simply will not recycle. A 2009 Harris Interactive poll found that 13 percent of respondents rarely or never recycle. Another 19 percent only recycle sometimes. Compliance remains a barrier to recycling. Half of American households do not have access to curbside recycling, creating an obstacle to recycling. These impediments will continue to thwart recycling efforts.
In order for solid waste to be recycled, it must come to the waste recycling center in an uncontaminated state, according to the EPA. While total prevention of contamination is not possible, disposal of recycled materials may be necessary if there are too many contaminants present. You should rinse clean anything you recycle. Used paper plates and pizza boxes are not recyclable because of food contamination.
Improperly disposal of solid waste can cause unintended problems. While recycling your computer is beneficial for the environment, it can carry risks for you. Unscrupulous individuals can potentially get access to sensitive information on your hard drive if you did not erase your data properly. This can leave you open to identity theft and financial loss.
Another concern is the type of material you wish to recycle. No all materials can be recycled. As the city of Concord, Massachusetts points out, recycling is a market-driven business with changing rules of supply and demand. Your collection efforts may be useless depending upon how volatile the markets are for recycled materials.
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Municipal Solid Waste in the United States
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Mercury - Health Effects
- Harris Interactive: How Green Are We? Putting Our Money (and Behavior) Where Our Mouth Is
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Paper Recycling - Recovered Paper Quality