How Big of an Impact Does Recycling Make on the Environment?

What are the impacts of recycling on the environment?

Everyone knows recycling is good for the environment. However, it’s debatable how good it can actually be. Changing situations have caused the cost of recycling to change and increased the volume of resources that are put into it. On average, Americans produce about 254 million tons of trash. That’s a lot to find room for. There’s simply nowhere to put it all.

However, of that, about 87 million tons are recycled. This cuts down significantly on the trash headed straight for landfill and helps cut down on carbon emissions. The EPA determined that recycling accomplished a goal similar to taking 39 million cars off the roads in 2013. That’s a pretty amazing impact!

Each of the recyclable materials is processed in a different way, and some new developments are starting to slow the process down.


Aluminum cans are easily the most recycled material. It makes sense since they’re one of the first things that were accepted for recycling. They’re easy to recycle, are accepted everywhere, and they have one of the highest values as recycling material. They also provide the highest profit margin to the company that’s doing the recycling. Since costs are continuing to increase, that profit margin is important.


Glass has been used for centuries, but is one of the more difficult options to recycle. Glass is heavy, needs to be rinsed, and it’s fairly difficult to reprocess. If you don’t throw away an abundance of glass, and most people don’t, this is one item that you can send to the landfill. It’s not ideal, but in this case, it is the better option.


Wood is less accepted for recycling. Each township and borough have their own rules on where and how to recycle, so it’s important to educate yourself before you jump in, no holds barred. If you live in an area where wood recycling either isn’t done or is very inconvenient, it’s great for compost as well. Otherwise, most untreated wood is likely to be recyclable.

Just don’t hold out too much hope for treated wood, as that’s more difficult to reuse. Companies can’t risk people burning treated wood, so they often just don’t accept it.


Paper is, again, one of the easier recycling options. Junk mail can almost always be tossed, as can important papers, once they’re scanned into your computer and shredded. Just don’t depend solely on the computer – back it up! One of the reasons paper is such a useful recycling option is that it just gets turned right back into more paper. It gets sorted, processed, cleaned and reformed. It does take some work, but it’s significantly less than chopping down entire trees.

However, that process does do some damage. Paper can’t be recycled indefinitely. Ever wonder why newspapers and printer paper feel so different? It’s partly because newspaper has been recycled multiple times. After about six or seven times of being reused, the old paper needs some help. At that point, some new paper pulp will be added to strengthen it.


Plastic is recycled almost as much as aluminum. However, a lot of people seem to think plastic means any kind of plastic, including those plastic bags you get at the grocery store. This actually isn’t the case, and adding too many plastic bags to a recycling container can force the company to trash the whole thing. Keep those bags separate and drop them off at the grocery store instead.

As far as other plastics go, you’ll have to check and see which ones are accepted in your community – or, just skip it. Plastic is one of the least effective recyclable materials. That’s too bad since it sticks around forever, but you might be increasing your carbon footprint by rinsing it out. Instead, just try to avoid buying plastic items in the first place.

Problems With Recycling

Recycling is not as lucrative as it used to be. Part of the problem is the increase in recyclables, and communities trying to encourage it. It sounds counterintuitive, but by providing residents with larger recycling bins, they’re increasing the amount of nonrecyclable trash people are tossing. Now that everything can fit into one bin, people aren’t separating anything. In some places that might not matter so much, depending on the method of collection, but the trash definitely does.

For some items, recycling simply costs more than the landfill or incinerator. It’s a challenge, and the profits have been steadily falling. So if you can’t recycle everything, it really is OK. Just start being a little choosier about what you put out for it and you’ll help more than you hurt. Recycling is worth it, so long as we pay attention to what we’re doing.

Bobbi Peterson - environmental advocate, blogger and freelance writer Bobbi Peterson loves writing and regularly posts on her blog Living Life Green. She’s also a freelance writer, green living advocate, and environmentalist. You can find more from Bobbi on Twitter.

Bobbi Peterson
Bobbi Peterson
Bobbi Peterson ia a freelance writer, green living advocate, and environmentalist.

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  1. It sure was nice to know that most untreated wood can be recycled though they can also be used as compost if the person has no other choice. If that is the case, then I guess it is okay for me to purchase the barn wood that my mom is talking about. Surely I will save more in doing so which is important because I only have a limited budget for the shed construction project that I have been looking forward to starting.


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