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Published December 2, 2008 09:21 AM

Is Recycling Worth It? Popular Mechanics Investigation

Americans haul 82 million tons of trash to recycling centers each year. But does it pay off—for the environment or the economy? Popular Mechanics has some real answers.

Written by Alex Hutchinson, appearing in the December issue of Popular Mechanics

The modern era of recycling began in the meandering wake of the Mobro 4000. The infamous garbage barge spent much of 1987 traveling up and down the eastern seaboard looking for a place to dump its 3000-ton load of New York trash. It was refused at every port. By the time the spurned vessel returned to Long Island, still ferrying its fetid cargo, it had become the poster child for what was trumpeted as a national crisis: dwindling landfill space. Faced with the scale of their own refuse, Americans took action. Nascent recycling programs blossomed into major operations. Municipalities invested in trucks for curbside pickups and in facilities to handle mountains of castoff material. Kindergartners were taught the virtues of separating clear glass from green. Almost overnight, it seemed, recycling was embraced by the public as a kind of all-purpose absolution for our environmental sins.

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Yet doubts remained. Some critics wondered if, far from being an environmental panacea, recycling is actually a giant placebo that makes us feel virtuous but wastes both money and resources. Take the much- maligned plastic water bottle. It’s almost always made from petroleum, a resource that certainly seems worth conserving, and if you chuck it in the trash, the container will live on in a landfill for centuries. But how much diesel fuel does the truck that collects these bottles burn? How much energy does the recycling plant consume; what fumes does it emit into the atmosphere? And what does it all cost, anyway?

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