United States recycling is big business, though garbage is even bigger. In 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency says, Americans generated 250 million tons of trash. The country recycled or composted 34.7 percent of the garbage, roughly equal to 87 million tons. That benefits water, land and air in a variety of ways.
Less in Landfills
The more material Americans recycle, the less goes into landfills. That's a plus for air quality, which a 2011 University of North Carolina study says is worse around landfills. The study found that the area around one Orange County, NC, landfill had higher levels of hydrogen sulfide gases. The gas smells unpleasant, and may indicate other vapors are also seeping out of the earth. Residents around the landfill reported more respiratory problems and irritation of the eyes, nose and throat when the gas was present.
Recycling also improves air quality by reducing the demand for power. Collecting, processing and shipping recycled materials to industrial users requires less energy than mining, refining, processing and shipping raw materials, according to Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection. That's a good deal because the more power the United States uses, the more fossil fuels it burns. The higher the fossil fuel use, the more pollutants industry pumps into the atmosphere.
Reducing the need for power and for processing raw materials also reduces greenhouse gas emissions. In 2005, the Pennsylvania DEP says, recycling reduced greenhouse gases by the equivalent of 9 million tons of carbon dioxide. The reduction happens because recycling reduces the need to burn fossil fuels such as gasoline, diesel and coal. Recycling also lowers emissions from incinerators and slows the felling of trees -- and living trees can soak up carbon dioxide.
There are cases where recycling may influence air quality for the worse. In Houston in 2013, for example, the city found that metal recycling operations released smoke into the surrounding neighborhood, including cancer-causing chemicals. Welding and cutting the metal releases metal compounds into the air, something environmental regulators hadn't previously considered. The effects of the metallic pollution could potentially include higher cancer rates in the surrounding area. The city said it would work with recyclers to reduce the city's exposure to the chemicals.
- Environmental Protection Agency: Municipal Solid Waste
- University of North Carolina: Landfill Air Pollution May Be as Unhealthy as it Is Unpleasant, Study Finds
- Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection: Recycling Saves Energy
- Pennsylvania DEP: Recycling Saves Our Environment
- Houston Department of Health and Human Services: What Is Actually Emitted From Area Sources
About the Author
A graduate of Oberlin College, Fraser Sherman began writing in 1981. Since then he's researched and written newspaper and magazine stories on city government, court cases, business, real estate and finance, the uses of new technologies and film history. Sherman has worked for more than a decade as a newspaper reporter, and his magazine articles have been published in "Newsweek," "Air & Space," "Backpacker" and "Boys' Life." Sherman is also the author of three film reference books, with a fourth currently under way.