Is Recycling Really Worth the Effort?


Each year city leaders take on the task of balancing budgets while keeping a close eye on core city services. If there’s a deficit, one line item that might face reduced support is recycling-related efforts and programs. While they do require budget dollars to maintain, these recycling efforts also promise to save a city money (and environmental impact) in the end.

Recycling costs vary from one city to the next depending upon proximity to landfills, labor cost, real estate prices, and method of recycling. Despite varying financial benefits, there are many positive reasons both economically and environmentally to recycle. 

When it comes to recyclable materials – aluminum, glass, plastic, and paper – some recycle more easily than others and their life spans are extraordinarily long. In all cases, recycling of these materials results in energy and natural resource savings.


Did you know you that aluminum has NO limit to the number of times it can be recycled and more aluminum goes into beverage cans than any other product? Speaking of cans, American use 80 billion aluminum cans per year. Recycling one aluminum can produces an energy savings equivalent of powering a television for three hours. Now consider this: an aluminum can sitting idle in a landfill 500 years from now is still an aluminum can, yet an aluminum can that is recycled could appear as a new can in just 60 days. Talk about life span and shelf life!


Now if you thought the life span of aluminum was long, consider the modern glass bottle – it takes 4,000 years for a single glass bottle to decompose. By recycling just one glass bottle, enough energy is saved to run a 100-watt light bulb for four hours, or one compact fluorescent bulb for 20 hours.


America’s love of paper comes with some serious environmental consequences – from deforestation to carbon emissions. Each year, 4 billion trees worlwide are harvested to produce paper, wood, and related products. To print a Sunday edition of the New York Times requires 75,000 trees. A busy supermarket uses 6 million paper bags per year which is equal to about 8,500 trees per store per year. Recycling a ton (2,000 pounds) of paper can save: Three cubic yards of landfill space, 17 trees, 380 gallons of oil, 4,000 kilowatts of energy, and 7,000 gallons of water.


The last of the recyclable materials to consider is plastic. A lot of plastic is used each day and it takes an incredible amount of resources to create plastic products. For example, 17 million barrels of oil are required to produce the number of water bottles used in one year, and it takes three times the amount of water to make the bottle as it does to fill it. Recycling plastic saves two times as much energy as burning it in an incinerator. About 2,500,000 plastic botles are used every hour by Americans and most are thrown away. Think of the savings that could be had!

Clearly, there are environmental impacts associated with the continued use of products made from materials that tax our natural resources. Recycling offers a number of economic – cost savings and jobs creation – and environmental benefits.

Well-run recycling programs cost much less to operate than waste collection, landfilling, and incineration.

Recycling produces a number of overall cost savings driven largely by rates of recycling – as volumes or rates of recycling increase costs decrease. Savvy city managers can drive additional cost savings by negotiating contracts and implementing incentive programs and public space recycling. Public space recycling programs give passerbys an obvious option at the point of disposal will encourage proper recycling of materials in hand. Pay-as-you-throw programs, which are designed to encourage people to recycle, can help businesses and residents save money by reducing the volume of trash disposed. Read up on some suggestions of how to improve your community’s recycling rates.

Job creation is another benefit of recycling.

1.1 million U.S. jobs, $236,000,000,000 in gross annual sales, and $37,000,000,000 in annual payroll is attributable to recycling programs. Recycling creates four jobs for every one job created in the waste management and disposal industries. When it comes to processing recyclables and new product creation, 25 jobs are created for every one job focused on collecting recyclables.

Environmentally, the benefits of recycling are promising.

Manufacturing with recycled materials saves energy and water, and produces less air and water pollution. Recycling conserves and reduces the demand for natural resources like minerals, timber, and water. These resources are often the crux of brutal wars fought all over the world. Reduce logging and mining and the environmental results are almost immediately recognized – prevention of soil erosion and habitat destruction, as well as reduced loss of biodiversity. Recycling also affects air and water quality by reducing upwards of 10 major categories of pollutants. The environmental benefits do not stop there. It often takes less energy to recycle than to produce products from raw materials. For example, it takes 95% less energy to recycle aluminum and 70% less energy to recycle plastics than to produce each from raw resources. 

Recycling diverts 70,000,000 tons of wasted materials from reaching landfills and incinerators each year in the US alone. A national recycling rate of 30% reduces greenhouse gas emissions equal to the removal of nearly 25,000,000 cars from the road.

Recycling can significantly reduce toxic emissions resulting in air and water pollution, preserve natural resources, and provide economic and environmental benefits that in turn benefit us all.

Now ask yourself again… Is recycling really worth all the effort?


These recycling facts have been compiled from various sources including the National Recycling Coalition, the Environmental Protection Agency, and

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