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What if everyone in the world recycled?

        Science | What If

Small individual recycling contributions can add up to significant ecological benefits.
Small individual recycling contributions can add up to significant ecological benefits.
Blend Images – KidStock/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

After a taxing but exhilarating spin class, Jane finishes the last of her sports drink and chucks the bottle into the trash on her way out the gym's door. She isn't opposed to recycling, but it didn't really cross her mind, especially when the easy option is a trash bin placed conveniently near the exit.

Not recycling a solitary plastic bottle may seem like a small thing, but small things have a way of adding up. What would it be like if everyone -- all over the world -- recycled?

Let's turn to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for some perspective. For more than 30 years, the EPA has collected information on how much trash Americans generate -- and how much of it they recycle. In 2012, the most recent year for EPA data, people in the U.S. created 251 million tons (228 million metric tons) of trash and recycled nearly 87 million tons (79 million metric tons) of that same refuse. That comes out to a recycling rate of 34.5 percent, the equivalent of recycling 1.51 pounds of the 4.38 pounds (0.68 kilograms of the 1.97 kilograms) of trash each American generates per day [source: EPA].

But what if Americans were able to recycle even more of their daily trash? And what if everyone else in the world recycled, too? In many cases, they already are — at least to some extent. Take Germany, for example. The country currently recycles nearly half the trash its population produces [source: Waste Atlas].

If more people around the world recycled, it could help minimize the negative impact of pollution, including debris littered across land and water. If everyone in the world recycled, there would likely not be as large a collection of plastic floating in the ocean between Japan to the West Coast of North America. Known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, it is made up of microplastics — some of which are too small to be seen without visual aids — intermingled with larger items to create a cloudy, soupy mix. And this is only what is floating near the top of the water. It's estimated a whopping 70 percent of marine trash sinks to the oceanic floor [source: Turgeon].

If there were recycling en masse, it would reduce our collective carbon footprint on the planet. A carbon footprint is the amount of carbon dioxide and other carbon compounds released into the atmosphere as a result of our activities [source: Dictionary].

For example, if a family of four recycled plastic waste, it would eliminate nearly 340 pounds of carbon-equivalent emissions each year. Multiply that by families all over the world who are making a concerted effort to recycle as much waste as possible, and there's room to make a real impact on the planet – starting with just one sports drink bottle [sources: EPA, EPA].

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