Most of the reasons we recycle are environmental, although some are economic. These include:
Too Much Garbage
One of the main reasons for recycling is to reduce the amount of garbage sent to landfills. Landfill usage peaked in the 1980s, when Americans sent almost 150 million tons (136.08 million metric tons) of garbage to landfills each year. Today, we still dump more than 100 million tons (90.719 million metric tons) of trash into landfills annually [source: Hall]. Even though modern sanitary landfills are safer and less of a nuisance than the open dumps of the past, no one likes having a landfill around. In heavily populated areas, landfill space is scarce. Where space is plentiful, filling it with garbage isn't a very good solution to the problem. Today, recycling efforts in the United States divert 32 percent of waste away from landfills. That prevents more than 60 million tons (54.432 million metric tons) of garbage from ending up in landfills every year [source: EPA].
Pollution from Landfill Leachate
Landfills cause another problem in addition to taking up lots of space. The assortment of chemicals thrown into landfills, plus the chemicals that result when garbage breaks down and blends into a toxic soup known as leachate, creates huge amounts of pollution. Leachate can drain out of the landfill and contaminate groundwater supplies. Today, impermeable clay caps and plastic sheeting prevent much of this run off, making the landfills much safer than they were just a few decades ago. Still, any leachate is too much if it's draining into your neighborhood.
New Goods Use Up Resources
Making a brand-new product without any recycled material causes natural resources to deplete in the manufacturing process. Paper uses wood pulp from trees, while the manufacture of plastics requires the use of fossil fuels like oil and natural gas. Making something from recycled materials means using fewer natural resources.
Recycling (Sometimes) Uses Less Energy
There's room for debate on this aspect of recycling, but many recycling processes require less energy than it would take to manufacture the same item brand-new. Manufacturing plastic is very inexpensive, and some plastic goods can be difficult to recycle efficiently. In those cases, the recycling process probably takes more energy. It can also be difficult to weigh all the energy costs along the entire chain of production. Recycling steel certainly uses less energy than the entire process of mining iron ore, refining it and forging new steel. Some contend that the fleet of recycling trucks collecting plastic and paper door to door every week in cities across the United States tips the balance of energy out of recycling's favor. Energy use is a factor weighed on a case-by-case basis.
Recycling has a variety of economic impacts. For the companies that buy used goods, recycle them and resell new products, recycling is the source of all their income. For cities in densely populated areas that have to pay by the ton for their landfill usage, recycling can shave millions of dollars off municipal budgets. The recycling industry can have an even broader impact. Economic analysis shows that recycling can generate three times as much revenue per ton as landfill disposal and almost six times as many jobs. In the St. Louis area, recycling generates an estimated 16,000 jobs and well more than $4 billion in annual revenue [source: Essential Guide].