Does Recycling Improve Your Health?
The fact that our daily activities create A LOT of trash that is very damaging to our planet and our bodies has been a concern of mine for a long time.
In fact, when I was a senior in college working in the president’s office at the University of South Carolina, I was shocked at the amount of paper waste we generated. Entire reams of wasted paper from the copy machine were just thrown in the garbage. That sounds strange today, doesn’t it? Yet at the time, it was what most people did.
However, I couldn’t stand it. I began collecting the paper in cardboard boxes and driving it to the recycling center myself! I realized it was a bigger problem than just one office, so I gathered the statistics and convinced the president to recycle the office wastepaper AND use recycled paper in the office.
I sat down with the administration and worked out a campus-wide recycling program. I’m proud to say we were one of the first universities in the country to have a comprehensive program. It’s still going strong today.
Now, many of us know that recycling is important because it reduces the amount of materials sent to landfills and saves energy. It helps protect the environment and conserves resources. Perhaps most importantly, it has a direct impact both on the planet’s health, and our own.
The more we know about it and understand its impact, the more likely we are to do it.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
When we talk about recycling, we’re often lumping together the concepts of reduce, reuse, and recycle. All of these help cut down the amount of waste you generate1 and lower your carbon footprint. Your carbon footprint is the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere as a result of your activities.2
Cutting down on the amount of waste products you use, such as buying groceries that don’t come in a plastic package.
Using materials more than once, such as washable food wraps and glass containers to store food, rather than disposables.
Making something new out of waste materials, such as footwear made from old rubber tires.
How Does Trash Impact Your Health?
Each person in the United States produces more than 1,780 pounds of trash on average each year, which is more than the average individual from any other country.3
The waste produced by humans not only takes up space, it also releases chemicals and greenhouse gasses.
Not only does that take up a space, it also releases harmful chemicals and greenhouse gasses as it sits in landfills.4 Decomposing garbage produces carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane. These all contribute to the air pollution that causes various respiratory diseases.
Increases in the risk of low birth weight, birth defects have been reported near landfills. Certain types of cancers including those of the pancreas, larynx, liver, kidney, as well as non-Hodgkin lymphoma are also more common near these sites.5 An increase of symptoms such as fatigue, sleepiness, and headaches among residents near waste sites has also consistently been reported.
Sites that are badly managed can also attract germ-spreading vermin. Rats can carry and spread diseases including hantavirus, a serious, respiratory disease; salmonella, a bacterial infection of the intestine; and rat-bite fever, a bacterial illness, among others.
It’s not just the people living near landfills who are affected. Houseflies are attracted to waste, whether it’s in a garbage can or a landfill. Flies have long been linked to at least 65 diseases including typhoid, dysentery, cholera, poliomyelitis, and tuberculosis.
Recent research at Penn State’s Department of Entomology found that H. pylori, a type of bacteria that can survive in your digestive system, can be transmitted by flies. H. pylori can cause peptic ulcers in humans.6
Garbage that doesn’t end up in a landfill is usually burned. Several studies suggest the pollution from incinerators is linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and soft tissue tumors. Congenital problems including urinary tract defects, preterm births, and miscarriages are also related to incinerator-generated air pollution.7
Clearly, garbage has a huge impact on our bodies as well as our planet. Reducing the amount of trash we create in turn reduces all of the health risks associated with garbage.
The Impact of Recycling On Health
Recycling reduces the health risks of disease and birth defects associated with landfills and incinerators. It also has a positive impact on our personal health and that of our planet in several other ways.
Recycled materials save energy because making new products from raw materials uses a lot more energy than using recycled ones, even when comparing all the associated costs such as transportation.
It therefore also reduces the need for extracting, refining, and processing those raw materials, which themselves create a lot of air and water pollution. This energy efficiency reduces greenhouse gas emissions, minimizes climate change, and conserves natural resources — all of which protect the health of our planet and our personal health as well.
In fact, recycled steel saves 60% on production energy. Recycled plastics save 70%. And it takes 95% less energy to recycle aluminium than it takes to make it from raw materials. Using scrap steel instead of virgin ore to make new steel uses 40% less water and creates 97% less mining waste.
Making new products from raw materials uses a lot more energy than using recycled ones.
To put your efforts into perspective, in the US, recycling just plastics could save between 30 and 170 million tons of carbon each year, which is the equivalent of taking between six and 30 million vehicles off US roads.8 When you recycle just 10 plastic bottles, you save enough energy to power a laptop for over 25 hours because of the energy saved from not having to create new bottles.9
Are You Recycling Correctly?
Unfortunately, we typically don’t recycle everything that we can. Each year, Americans throw out around 22 million tons of products that could have been recycled.10 That’s partly because millions of homes don’t have easy access to recycling facilities.11
You might also be unclear about what can be recycled, and what can’t. The quickest way to find out is to contact your local county, city, or private hauler to find out what your options are. The most common items that can be put into your curbside recycling bin include:
- Food boxes
- Plastic bags
- Beverage cans
- Food cans
- Plastic bottles and caps
- Glass bottles
- Jars (glass and plastic
Usually, plastic bags and wraps, electronics, and textiles shouldn’t go into your curbside recycling bin. Don’t put anything in your recycling bin unless you know it’s accepted in your area, because this can contaminate a whole load of items, causing it to be thrown out. Here are some items that should never go into any recycling bin:
- Garden hoses
- Sewing needles
- Bowling balls
- Food or food-soiled paper
- Propane tanks or cylinders
- Aerosol cans that aren’t completely empty
- Broken light bulbs
Batteries also may need a special recycling center because they may contain lead, chemicals, hazardous materials and environmentally-toxic wastes.12
Finally, any excess medications should be turned in to a local drop-off center — often a police station — instead of being thrown away or flushed.
Recycling and composting should be high on your priority list if you want a healthy body far into the future. The quality of air you breathe and the soil your food comes from depend on having a clean environment. It’s also critical if you want to provide a healthy world for the generations to come.
If you needed one more reason, recycling creates jobs. The National Recycling Coalition reports that recycling has created $236 billion in gross annual sales, $37 billion in annual payroll and 1.1 million jobs. Incinerating 10,000 tons of waste creates one job, landfilling the same amount creates 6 jobs, while recycling it creates 36 jobs.13
Here are some small steps you can take. Together, we can make a big difference!
Minimize the amount of waste you make in the first place by opting for cloth kitchen towels rather than paper, using stasher bags or waxed cotton fabric for storing vegetables rather than plastic bags from the grocery store, and avoiding plastic or paper bags whenever possible. My canvas tote is perfect for shopping or taking along what you need for a day trip!
You’ll be amazed at how much use you can get out of everyday packaging, for example. One of my team members uses my Paleo Protein containers to store cassava and almond flours and my Collagen Protein container for teabags. There are dozens of easy-to-find websites devoted to repurposing everything from plastic bottles, to egg cartons, to wooden pallets, to old tires.
There are three ways you can participate in this process.
- First, purchase products that are made from recycled materials, and consider shopping for gently used items rather than new.
- Second, select products packaged in easily recycled materials. The packaging for most of my products is made from #2 plastic, the most widely recycled type of plastic.
- Finally, recycle materials you cannot reuse to ensure they don’t end up in a landfill. This includes donating or reselling clothing, sending paper, plastic, and glass to a recycling center, and giving away toys and games your family no longer needs.
A few small changes in your daily habits can go a long way in making a difference in your own health and the health of our planet.