Recycling Myths and Excuses

Myth: Recycling means more material to collect.

The same amount of waste is generated as with an all-disposal system. That waste is just separated into useful categories that can be reprocessed into usable goods.

Myth: Not recycling is cheaper than recycling.

Recycling should always be compared against disposal, since the material still must be transported off campus. Not recycling means paying for disposal.

Myth: Since we have plenty of landfills, recycling isn't important.


Recycling has many more benefits than reduced landfill use, the chief of which are the conservation of natural resources (trees, oil, minerals, etc.), reduced energy consumption, and the pollution and environmental impact associated with them (clear-cutting, oil drilling, mining, burning coal to melt steel, etc.). By recycling, you are conserving natural resources and reducing the amount of pollution and greenhouse gases released into the environment. Also the impacts of landfills are greater than simply the space they take up. As organic matter (anything that was once living) breaks down in a landfill, it produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas. By reducing the amount of organic material sent to the landfill, by composting, paper recycling, etc., you are helping to reduce greenhouse gases.

Myth: Recycling bins are ugly and cannot fit into the local aesthetic.

Recycling bins, which are the same as trash bins, come in every shape, style, and color and can fit into nearly any aesthetic scheme.

Myth: Someone goes through the trash and pulls out the recyclables before it goes to the landfill.

Anything thrown into the trash will end up in the landfill. The labor required to sort through trash after it has already been mixed is prohibitive and almost never happens. The only feasible way of separating recyclables is "source separation," meaning each person separates their trash at the time they throw it away. The only effort here is the difference between throwing trash into one bin or another.

Myth: Only white paper is recyclable.

Just about any type of paper is technically recyclable, including envelopes, post-it notes, colored paper, newspaper, and magazines. Some universal restrictions are waxy or thermal paper (for older fax machines), laminated paper, and food-stained paper. However, different recycling companies require different mixes and restrictions.

Myth: Incineration is safe these days and you can burn trash for the electricity.

Incineration still produces emissions into the air including air pollutants and greenhouse gases. While it is true that some incinerators also produce electricity, it is not without impact. Recycling the material, or reusing or reducing its use, will save electricity and is a much more efficient way of handling the material.

Myth: It's OK to throw something away as long as it's biodegradable.

There is a lack of oxygen underground that prevents waste from decomposing. Biodegradable waste breaks down into methane in the landfill, if at all. The methane is usually released into the atmosphere, where it is a potent greenhouse gas. A better solution is to recycle the material, or even better, reuse it or reduce its use altogether. Non-biodegradable waste does not produce methane, but it also will not break down in the landfill, thus using more space. Composting biodegradables is an effective option.


Excuses People Make for Not Recycling


Excuse: Recycling costs too much.

  • Well-run recycling programs cost less than landfills and incinerators.
  • The more people recycle, the cheaper it gets.
  • Recycling helps families save money, especially in communities with pay-as-you-throw programs.
  • Recycling generates revenue to help pay for itself, while incineration and landfilling do not.
  • The U.S. Recycling Economic Information (REI) Study is an unprecedented national study that demonstrates the importance of recycling and reuse to the U.S. economy, considering direct and indirect economic impacts:

Excuse: Recycling should pay for itself.

  • Landfills and incinerators don't pay for themselves; in fact they cost more than recycling programs.
  • Recycling creates more than one million U.S. jobs in recycled product manufacturing alone. There are 10 times more jobs in recycling than there are in disposal.
  • Hundreds of companies, including Hewlett Packard, Bank of America, and the U.S. Postal Service, have saved millions of dollars through their recycling programs.
  • Through recycling, the U.S. is saving enough energy to provide electricity for 9 million homes per year.

Excuse: Recycling causes pollution.

  • Recycling results in a net reduction in ten major categories of air pollutants and eight major categories of water pollutants.
  • Manufacturing with recycled materials, with very few exceptions, saves energy and water and produces less air and water pollution than manufacturing with virgin materials.
  • Recycling trucks often generate less pollution than garbage trucks because they do not idle as long at the curb. If you add recycling trucks, you should be able to subtract garbage trucks.
  • By 2005, recycling will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 48 million tons, the equivalent of the amount emitted by 36 million cars.

Excuse: Recycling doesn't save trees or other natural resources.

  • 94% of the natural resources America uses are non-renewable (up from 59% in 1900 and 88% in 1945).
  • Recycling saves these non-renewable resources. With recycling, 20% more wood will need to be harvested by 2010 to keep up with demand. Without recycling, 80% more wood would need to be harvested.
  • 95% of our nation's virgin forests have been cut down and less than 20% of paper manufactured in the U.S. comes from tree farms.
  • It takes 95% less energy to recycle aluminum than it does to make it from raw materials. Making recycled steel saves 60%, recycled newspaper 40%, recycled plastics 70%, and recycled glass 40%.
  • Landfilling never saves energy.
  • Recycling saves 3.6 times the amount of energy generated by incineration and 11 times the amount generated by methane recovery at a landfill.
  • Using scrap steel instead of virgin ore to make new steel takes 40% less water and creates 97% less mining waste.
  • Tree farms and reclaimed mines are not ecologically equivalent to natural forests and ecosystems.
  • Recycling prevents habitat destruction, loss of biodiversity, and soil erosion associated with logging and mining.

Excuse: There is no landfill crisis.


  • Recycling's true value comes from preventing pollution and saving natural resources and energy, not landfill space.
  • Recycling is largely responsible for averting the landfill crisis.
  • Most states have less than twenty years of landfill capacity: who wants to live next to a new landfill?
  • The number of landfills is decreasing, while the cost to send waste to them is on the rise.
  • The northeastern area of the US is especially in trouble with landfill space. Within the next ten years we will see more landfills close. This means we could eventually be shipping waste to less-populated Western states, which will cost more.
  • Space is very limited and if we save the space today we will have it for tomorrow.

Excuse: Landfills and incinerators are safe.

  • Landfills and incinerators can be major sources of pollution. For example, leachate from solid waste landfills is similar in composition to that of hazardous waste landfills.
  • About 1/4 of the sites on the Superfund list (the nation's most hazardous sites) are solid waste landfills.
  • Landfills are responsible for 36% of all methane emissions in the U.S., one of the most potent causes of global warming.
  • About 2/3 of operating landfills do not have liners to protect groundwater and drinking water sources.
  • Landfill owners only have to check for groundwater contamination for 30 years. What happens afterwards?
  • When it comes to incineration we have to think about emissions. Burning garbage may cause respiratory illness, blacken buildings and kill plants. Some of the emissions we are talking about are hydrogen sulfide (which causes acid rain), carbon monoxide and several heavy metals.

Excuse: If recycling makes sense, the free market will make it happen.

  • Government supports lots of services that the free market wouldn't provide, such as the delivery of running water, electricity, and mail to our homes.
  • Unlike most public services, recycling does function with in the market economy, and quite successfully.
  • If the market were truly free, long-standing subsidies that favor virgin materials and landfills would not exist, and recycling could compete on a level playing field.

Excuse: There are no markets for recyclables.

  • Prices may fluctuate as they do for any commodity, but domestic and international markets exist for all materials collected in curbside recycling programs.
  • Demand for recycled materials has never been greater. American manufacturers rely on recyclables to produce many of the products on your store shelves.
  • By the year 2005, the value of materials collected for recycling will surpass $5 billion per year.
  • All new steel products contain recycled steel.
  • Over 1,400 products and 310 manufacturers use post-consumer plastics.
  • In 1999, recycled paper provided more than 37% of the raw material fiber needed by U.S. paper mills.

Excuse: We are already recycling as much as we can.

  • The national recycling rate is 28%. The U.S. EPA has set a goal of 35% and many communities are recycling 50% or more.
  • Many easily recycled materials are still thrown away. For example, 73% of glass containers, 77% of magazines, 66% of plastic soda and milk bottles, and 45% of newspapers are not recycled.
  • We are nowhere near our potential, especially if manufacturers make products easier to recycle.
  • Canada set a goal of 50% diversion of solid waste from disposal by the year 2000. The province of Nova Scotia exceeded that goal through such steps as banning compostable organic materials from landfills and providing curbside collection of all organic materials for composting.

Excuse: Recycling is a burden on families.

  • Recycling is so popular because the American public wants to do it.
  • More people recycle than vote.
  • More than 20,000 curbside programs and drop-off centers for recycling are active today because Americans use and support them.
  • The California Integrated Waste Management Board funded the University of California- Berkeley to quantify and compare the economic benefits of waste disposal and diversion. See recent report at:

*Information on this page used with permission from Harvard University