Environmentally Confused – Burn or Recycle?

The recycling movement in 1990s-era Vancouver started as a lukewarm way to protect the environment. Then the issues started heating up until it was a sizzling hot topic.

Colorful Recycling Containers for Trash

Colorful Recycling Containers for Trash (Photo credit: epSos.de)

Everyone I knew became a star recycler. We learned how to sort properly, and although I did not always compost, I really tried to be environmentally responsible in other ways. Up until 2001, I was doing my undergraduate degree in biology and I felt it was my duty to understand the issues and be proactive.

In 2005 (give or take) I read Michael Crichton’s book State of Fear. Although there is controversy as to his thesis behind this fictional story, he had some great points about whether we were all jumping on the global warming bandwagon without all the facts. Almost 10 years later I still feel that way on a daily basis.

I am conditioned to recycle. I am often pulling containers out of the waste bins when the kids throw things away. I wash and sort all my food containers and diligently take it to the depots. But now I am confused. An article on Mother Nature Network discusses how Sweden is running of out of garbage to burn, so we are importing garbage from Norway:

the population’s remarkably pertinacious recycling habits are also a bit of a problem given that the country relies on waste to heat and to provide electricity to hundreds of thousands of homes through a longstanding waste-to-energy incineration program (source)

English: Municipal solid waste during combusti...

English: Municipal solid waste during combustion in a moving grate incinerator capable of handling 15 tonnes per hour waste. The primary combustion air enters the furnace through the holes visible on the grate. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was skeptical when I first heard about the incineration program. A trusted Swedish colleague assured me that it was probably better than recycling with respect to the amount of energy required to recycle and reuse the product compared to just burning it. But what about all those pollutants and toxins?

Sweden has had strict standards limiting emissions from waste incineration since the mid-1980s. Most emissions have fallen by between 90 and 99 per cent since then thanks to ongoing technical development and better waste sorting (source)

What are the facts? Am I a naïve recycler? As always, there is conflicting information. I generally have to trust others to do the research for me—I have a day job and I am trying to write a regular blog, which leaves me with little time to pursue an advanced degree or fully comprehend the environmental impact of my existence on this planet.

What are your thoughts about recycling in your country?

8 thoughts on “Environmentally Confused – Burn or Recycle?

  1. Very interesting article. Waste recycling does happen in South Africa but not nearly to the level that it does overseas. The concept of turning waste into energy does seem to make sense but, like you, I would have to research and there seems to be precious little time for that.

    • Thank you for some insight into South Africa. I am not surprised that it is not as hot a topic as in other countries as there are many other issues that are still, I am sure, requiring attention and legislation.

  2. I have been thinking, while I’m cleaning the milk packets or the butter packets and so on; how much energy does it take to clean those things? And it’s almost always necessary to clean them because it comes from food packets. And then I take the car up to the recycling (that takes gas). Is it really environmentally friendly to recycle the way I do?
    At my work we have different places for putting food, plastic, paper and so on. We have had the same cleaning company for many years but then one day I saw the cleaner putting all together in the same bag. It shows that nobody has told HIM what to do with the recycling. What? Wasn’t that the most important?
    So, one thought: I think it’s awesome that we recycle BUT WE MUST FIND OUT WHAT IS HAPPENING AFTERWARDS. And if it’s worth it. And if it’s not, what shall we do instead?

    • Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Charlie. One of the Related Posts is about just such a thing, but on a massive scale, where a whole country’s recycling is being shipped to other countries for disposal, in landfill. It is a huge business no matter what side you are on. And as with so many things, there are better solutions, but we don’t always find a way to make it happen. A friend put me onto this Ted Talk by Boyan Slat http://www.boyanslat.com/TEDx/. He is a young man with a great idea to take care of “millions of tons of plastic debris [which] are polluting world’s oceans”. His idea is one that will, in theory, make a profit while also cleaning up the ocean. But of course it will never come to fruition. There are so many of these projects and ideas circulating the Internet and academia. Again, I wonder, what truth to believe?

  3. Recycling programs are offered most everywhere now in the US, but it’s very loosely enforced. Unless there’s curbside pick-up or dedicated dumpsters set aside in apartment buildings for recycling, many people just don’t bother. For Americans, it’s all about convenience, and if it’s too much trouble people won’t do it. When I lived in Germany, my small town weighed trash dumpsters and charged apartment buildings (and consequently its residents) based on how much trash was thrown out versus recycled. Obviously the effort encouraged residents to recycle, rather than throw away.

    I’ve never heard of a waste-to-energy incineration program, and I have no idea if such things occur in the U.S. I have my doubts, however, since every governmental effort in this country is politically motivated and there would be far too many bureaucratic barriers to put something like this in place. My interest has been piqued, however. Maybe I’ll investigate this more.

    • Gwen, thank you as always for your thoughtful responses, especially providing further insight into the US experience for people not from NA. I know Canada is not perfect either with respect to recycling, it depends entirely on the city and province, and then on the local economy also. I am glad I was able to provide you with some new information.

  4. Reblogged this on BioEnergy Consult Blog and commented:
    Sweden has had strict standards limiting emissions from waste incineration since the mid-1980s. Most emissions have fallen by between 90 and 99 per cent since then thanks to ongoing technical development and better waste sorting.

  5. Pingback: Environmentally Confused-Burn or Recycle? | Blueway

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