Why We Should Recycle

I was recently sent a link for an article from my English 2010 teacher regarding my social justice issue topic, recycling. The article is here and is titled “The Reign of Recycling” by John Tierney. In his article, Tierney essentially goes against the grain of common belief that recycling is the better option to throwing trash away. One excerpt from his article shown below illustrates well the point he is trying to get across.

Recycling has been relentlessly promoted as a goal in and of itself: an unalloyed public good and private virtue that is indoctrinated in students from kindergarten through college. As a result, otherwise well-informed and educated people have no idea of the relative costs and benefits.

This challenges many views I have had on recycling, so, before doing a complete 180° turn, I searched more into some of the facts he gives in his argument. I came across a story here on Medium.com written by Rob Caplan that “fact checks” many of Tierney’s claims with third party evidence. He basically outlines Tierney’s arguments made and disproves them with data he has cited. While this information calmed my mind regarding what beliefs I have held and shared with others concerning recycling, it brings up a good point. It is important to look at the effect recycling has. So in this story I will cover the issues facing plastic pollution in the ocean and the marine life and how recycling is the best solution to the problem.

Marine plastic pollution is a global problem.

Out of all sources of marine pollution, land run-off is the largest. This pie-chart from the global organization, UNEP shows that 44% of marine pollution comes from land run-off. According to David F. MacInnes who co-wrote an entry on ocean pollution in the Salem Press Encyclopedia in January of this year, “Rivers that have been polluted by land runoff are the largest source of harmful substances”(MacInnes).

MacInnes gives the examples of the Thames, Clyde, and Hudson rivers as examples of rivers so full of polluted of garbage and human waste in the 19th century that the problem was addressed at a global scale in new laws and ordinances (MacInnes).

This land-based pollution has a huge effect, especially on the coastal marine life. In the same entry, MacInnes explains the process that sewage and fertilizer land-based pollution can have on the coastal animals.

Sewage and agricultural runoff are high in nitrogen and phosphorus, which encourage ocean plants to grow. This results in unsightly algal scum on beaches. When the extra algae die and sink to the bottom, the resulting bacterial decomposition uses available dissolved oxygen, causing deoxygenation on the bottom waters. In extreme cases, this can kill fish. Some algal blooms contain toxic substances.

This “algae bloom” created environment not only deprives the oxygen out of fish laden water, but can affect humans if ingested. While this vicious cycle continues, research on human impact from this run-off is lacking. The one area we do have some research is on how plastic pollution affects the food chain.

An article posted on the Clean Water Action’s website titled, “The Problem of Marine Plastic Pollution” tells one story of how plastic pollution affects marine life.

In 2010, a California grey whale washed up dead on the shores of the Puget Sound. Autopsies indicated that its stomach contained a pair of pants and a golf ball, more than 20 plastic bags, small towels, duct tape and surgical gloves.

Plastic does not break down once it reaches the ocean, but only photo-degrades into smaller pieces. These pieces are mistaken as food or inadvertently eaten by marine animals. These pieces of plastic accumulate in a process aptly named bioaccumulation. Sadly, the problem does not remain in one place. Predatory creates feed on animals who die because either the plastic obstruct their intestines or the plastic carries toxins that absorb into the animals tissues. Thus, the predator gets sick for the same reasons in another process know as biomagnification (MacInnes). This process eventually finds its way to humans who can in turn get sick or even die.


So now that we see the effects pollution in general has on the environment and even us, humans, what can we do about it? The truth is that there is not one simple solution or change we can made to end such a complex problem.

The first step needed to be taken is to substantially reduce the amount of plastic waste we use. This is explained by Captain Charles J. Moore in an article written after he returned from a six week journey aimed at researching the Pacific Garbage Patches. He says,

The reality is that only by preventing synthetic debris — most of which is disposable plastic — from getting into the ocean in the first place will a measurable reduction in the ocean’s plastic load be accomplished (Moore).

This may seem like an obvious gesture, but it truly is what is needed to stop the cycle before it even gets started. As the video below states, we use 90% of all plastic only once. To stop the this issue, companies have to take responsibility for the packaging they create, as outlined in this video.

While this video produced by the organization NRDC proposes great solutions that I agree with, I want to focus on one idea they brought up. One of the main claims Tierney makes against recycling is on how the cost of recycling outweighs the benefits of recycling. This video shows that landfills are great consumers of money as well. So why is recycling the best solution for this problem? Even if theoretically recycling and landfill costs are equal (because they both have to pick up, transport, and process waste), recycling will always be the better option because it has a plan that is sustainable. Landfills bury trash and waste in rural spaces (plentiful here in the US). This may, in fact, be the cheaper option, (despite landfill leakage and the affect that can have on humans) but it can only go on for so long. Soon we will run out of space to put stuff or get tired of the associated consequences of having landfills. So while recycling may in fact seem more expensive and more labor intensive, it holds onto the fact that no waste needs to be stored. This is what makes recycling a more sustainable option for the many years to come and this is why we should recycle.

Works Cited

MacInnes, David F., Jr., and Karen N. Kähler. “Ocean Pollution.” Salem Press Encyclopedia (2015): Research Starters. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.

Moore, Charles J. “Choking the Oceans With Plastic.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 25 Aug. 2014. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.


“The Problem of Marine Plastic Pollution.” The Problem of Marine Plastic Pollution | Clean Water Action. Clean Water Action, n.d. Web. 01 Nov. 2015. <http://www.cleanwater.org/feature/problem-of-marine-plastic-pollution>.