Friday, November 13, 2009

Does Recycling Matter?

Last week, my roommate and I attended a talk on climate change. After the program, she asked me how I could possibly walk out of that room and not feel hopeless about our environment. She couldn’t help but wonder if it was just too late; could her small contribution really make a difference? Her question to me was, “Does my recycling effort even matter?”

So, given that this Sunday, November 15th is America Recycles Day, I decided to conduct an experiment. I can spout statistics all day, but I prefer to do the work for myself. So, let’s examine how much one recycling household contributes to decreasing energy use and waste.

Does the amount of materials that one household recycles really make a difference in the larger scheme of energy consumption and waste production?


1. Assess the contents of a recycle bin that has been collecting recyclables for 4 days in a household with three adults by cataloging and weighing all items in the bin.
2. Use the EPA iWARM program to estimate the energy saved by recycling these items.

1. Contents of recycle bin:
  • 2 glass bottles (12 fl. oz.)
  • 1 glass bottle (0.75L)
  • 50 plastic bags
  • 108 oz. paper (~4-inch stack)
  • 7 plastic containers
  • 1 gallon plastic container
  • 1 non-corrugated cardboard box
Total weight of materials & bin (8 lbs.) – Total weight of bin only (3 lbs.) = Total weight of recycled materials (5 lbs.)

2. iWARM results
Net energy saved is equivalent to 12.8 kiloWatt hours (kWh)


Overall, the amount of recyclables collected in a four day period saved 12.8 kWh of energy. This is equivalent to the amount of energy needed to run: a room air condition for 8.6 hours, a ceiling fan for 107.1 hours, a hairdryer for 8.4 hours, a clothes washer for 30.2 hours, a dishwasher for 5.4 hours, a laptop computer for 257 hours, or a 60W fluorescent light bulb for 988.4 hours. That's a lot of energy saved over the course of a year!

This amount also equates to 260 lbs. of trash kept out of landfills in one year, or ~22,000 lbs. kept out in an average (86 year) lifetime.

The numbers clearly show that recycling does matter. So on Sunday, celebrate America Recycles Day by making a pact to be a better recycler. Below are some resources and tips to help you on your way.

Additional Resources:
America Recycles Day

Recycling tips:
  • If you're cleaning out used items, don't thrown them away, Freecycle them.
  • If you're upgrading your electronics or appliances, stores often provide exchange programs and will recycle your old model when you purchase the new. Be sure to ask.
  • There are a number of products that can and should be recycled because of their chemical content. Below is the short list. Click on each product to find out how to recycle them.
Mercury light bulbs

Finally, to find out your local recycling guidelines, consult your local government's Solid Waste Department webpage.

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