Does Recycling Even Matter Now That China's Not Importing Our Plastic?

December 20, 2018

In January of 2018, China banned the import of most of the paper and plastic we’ve been sending over to be recycled. As a result, most municipalities in the U.S. stopped accepting any plastics labeled 3-7 for recycling. Citizens throughout the country began to question if recycling was even worth it anymore — after all, some experts were claiming that recycling was actually causing more ecological and economic harm than just dumping our waste in the landfills.

The debate on whether or not to recycle is decades old, and authorities on both sides of the argument have been offering up compelling research to support their assertions. Let’s take a closer look at what they have to say.

The Benefits of Recycling

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, recycling and composting kept 87.2 million tons of material out of landfills in 2013. This, in turn, prevented the release of 186 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That’s the equivalent of taking over 39 million cars off the road for an entire year!

Furthermore, recycling has proved to save both energy and money. Mining for aluminum and other metals is hard on the ecosystem and expensive to boot. Recycling aluminum cans saves 95 percent of the energy needed to manufacture new ones from virgin materials. Recycling steel and tin cans saves 60 to 74 percent.

Recycling cardboard and paper is another way to save money and the environment. Manufacturing cardboard and paper from raw materials is incredibly expensive, which is why reusing these products is so advantageous. What’s more, recycling paper saves about 60 percent of the energy required to make it from raw elements. It also reduces deforestation, which accounts for a startling 25% of greenhouse gases worldwide according to the Climate Institute

The Alleged Drawbacks

Economist Thomas Kinnaman recently concluded that the “optimal recycling rate” would be about 10 percent of all materials. His determination was based on which materials could be recycled to the most benefit at the lowest cost. He claimed there were no positive environmental benefits to recycling plastic and glass due to the low cost of virgin materials and the energy needed to do so.  

But here’s the thing: The cost of virgin materials (petroleum products) is low now, but it’s expected to rise — and demand for recycled materials varies with other market forces. Yes, recycling can sometimes be a net loss for cities, but the long-term economics remain comparatively stable. Recycling also creates jobs — the U.S. recycling industry employs 1.25 million people.

Furthermore, there are environmental benefits to recycling plastic and glass  — doing so saves one-third of the energy it takes to make those products from raw materials. Yes, reducing our dependence on and use of plastic is incredibly important, but recycling it is still far better than throwing it away.

As for those who claim recycling uses more energy than simply transporting trash to a landfill, they might want to have a chat with environmental consultant Dr. Jeffrey Morris. According to his study, manufacturing products from one ton of recyclables uses 10.4 million Btu; using virgin materials for the same amount requires 23.3 million Btu. As for the collecting, hauling, and processing of those recyclables, that adds only 0.9 million Btu to the total figure.


Is recycling worth it? Absolutely! But, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. To keep recycling effective, we need to stop consuming goods mindlessly. Proper education regarding the what materials are recyclable is necessary in order for recycling plants to run in an economically feasible manner. We need to employ technology to not only find new, more efficient ways to recycle but to also solve the growing water crisis and grow food for the billions of people on the planet. Finally, it’s time to improve the design of materials and shift responsibility into the hands of the manufacturers.

  1. Wash your recyclables thoroughly to cut back on the toxicity and energy expenditure that happens on the recycling plant level.
  2. Take a look at your local sanitation department website to see which materials and items they actually recycle. You might be surprised at the things you assumed they don’t take—or the ones you assumed they did, but they don’t.
  3. But the best strategy, of course, is to minimize your consumption in the first place. To cut back on your dependence on plastic, you need to embrace a “bring your own containers” mentality. Use cloth sacks at the grocery store, take containers to restaurants to carry leftovers, carry a reusable water bottle with you wherever you go, and so on.

As it currently stands, the U.S. recovers only about 15 percent of textiles. We can all do better than that! Beyond what you’re used to throwing in your recycling bin, there are so many things that can be recycled! Did you know 98 percent of a car can be recycled? Even most of the components of a building can be recycled! Every single action you take makes a difference — and we all have a responsibility to be responsible caretakers of the environment.

Do you recycle? Or do you try to minimize what you consume in the first place? 

Also by Liz: How To Take a Bath To Cure Everything, From Depression To Eczema

How To Winterize Your Home For Energy Efficiency & Hygge

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Liz Greene is a makeup enthusiast, rabid feminist, and an anxiety-ridden realist from the beautiful city of trees, Boise, Idaho. You can follow her latest misadventures on her blog, Three Broke Bunnies


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