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Too Much Recycling Not Good, Surprising Research Shows

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recycling-bottles-_1114571cIt might sound crazy to suggest that Americans recycle too much, but that is exactly what Thomas Kinnaman, a Professor of Economics at Bucknell University found through a research study last year.

His conclusions reveal exactly how much recycling benefits both the environment and society and make several useful suggestions to maximize the positive impact of your recycling efforts.

Kinnaman points out that there is not a lot of research already out there on the subject of recycling. With concerns over landfill space and the detrimental effect of consumerism on both the planet and humanity, it seems like an ‘as much recycling as possible’ would be beneficial, but surprisingly, the optimal rate for recycling is just 10%.

It turns out that recycling just doesn’t have as many benefits for the environment as it seems. It can be financially costly to local governments, and most recycled materials end up getting shipped overseas to be processed, burning fossil fuels along the way.

Modern landfills have environmental standards they must meet, and the pollution emitted by landfills is less than expected. In addition, they don’t lower nearby property values as much as previously thought. For every ton of garbage in a landfill, surrounding property values decrease by $4; the pollution from the garbage winds up costing society about $5 per ton. While economists predicted that each ton would cause enough pollution and lowered property values to cost society $67 – $280 per ton, the true cost is only about $9.

Of course, there are benefits to recycling. Heavy metals, in particular, are environmentally costly to mine, and so reusing these materials actually has a big impact. Kinnaman found that by using a ton of recycled material rather than a ton of mined material benefits the environment by up to $400 a ton.

The optimal rate of 10% is only meaningful if the right materials are being recycled. Aluminum, for instance, is frequently used and is damaging to mine. Any recyclable metal should be a top priority. Paper is also expensive both to humans and the environment when making it out of raw materials. Plastic and glass, however, may be better in a landfill. As guilty as you might feel throwing a plastic bottle away, just imagine that plastic bottle taking a plane trip to China.

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