What one thing should I recycle?

One of the things that guy is about to recycle could be better than the others. See more green living pictures.
One of the things that guy is about to recycle could be better than the others. See more green living pictures.
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If you're one of the several million people living in cities like Seattle or San Diego where recycling is mandatory, then you're no stranger to the sticky tubs of peanut butter that need rinsing before they go in the bin. Even if your town doesn't mandate recycling but you live in one of the 9,000 areas with a curbside pickup program, you've probably stomped your fair share of aluminum cans [source: Earth 911].

Whether you are a Captain Planet protégé or a casual wannabe who just recycles when it's convenient, odds are you have wondered if recycling is all it's cracked up to be. Sure, it's good to cut down on the use of natural resources and use less energy, but doesn't the recycling process require energy, too? Doesn't it produce its own share of waste?


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The answer is yes. And yes. But not all recycling is created equal. Some materials are more "worth it" than others. Although organizations like the National Recycling Coalition, Keep America Beautiful and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency promote recycling and its benefits vigorously, many people still debate the wisdom behind it.

­Some people claim that curbside pickup puts more gas-guzzling trucks on the streets, thus contributing to air pollution. Others cite the billions of tons of printer cartridges sent off for recycling that find their way into rivers or incinerators in China. Some of the arguments are valid. There is a gray area concerning the pluses and minuses of recycling for the simple reason that it is difficult to follow a product through its life cycle, from the factory to you to the recycling center.

But while it can be difficult to measure the real energy inputs and outputs of recycling versus the alternative of creating the same object out of new material, one familiar recyclable good emerges a clear winner. Even recycling skeptics can't argue the benefits of recycling this common household item.

So what is it? On the next page, you'll find out what the hands-down winner is. You'll also see how some other commonly recycled items stack up against number one. Finally you will learn about a few items that may be better off in the trash, not the recycling bin.