Most recycled product is not what you might expect.
What Can We Learn From This Success?
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), only about 1/3 of all waste in the U.S. is recycled or reused. 2/3 are going to landfills or incinerators. Scientific American wondered what product was the most recycled: “It’s not aluminum cans–only half are recycled. Or even office paper, at more than 70 percent. It’s the lead acid batteries from your car. More than 99 percent of such batteries wind up recycled, keeping toxic lead out of landfills and waterways.” That’s a good thing, because there’s an estimated “2.6 million metric tons of lead can be found in the batteries of vehicles on the road today”!
All this recycling is a very good thing indeed, because lead poisoning is nasty:
Lead is a poisonous metal that can damage nervous connections (especially in young children) and cause blood and brain disorders. Lead poisoning typically results from ingestion of food or water contaminated with lead; but may also occur after accidental ingestion of contaminated soil, dust, or lead based paint. Long-term exposure to lead or its salts (especially soluble salts or the strong oxidant PbO2) can cause nephropathy, and colic-like abdominal pains. The effects of lead are the same whether it enters the body through breathing or swallowing. Lead can affect almost every organ and system in the body.
Recycling Must be Done Properly
But it’s rainbows and puppies; not all lead-acid batteries are properly recycled, and if the process isn’t done right, it can create lead pollution. So it’s still a very good thing that the main chemistries for electric car batteries don’t contain lead (most lithium-ion variations are very close to being non-toxic).
So let’s keep the 99%+ recycling ratio, but move to non-toxic batteries as fast as possible. And for things other than car batteries, we could increase recycling by putting deposits and having take back programs for more things. It’s plain stupid to use lots of energy to make aluminum, for example, to then use it for a few minutes and throw it away. But if you put a 25 or 50 cents deposit per aluminum can, people will bring them back (and it won’t cost them more, since you reimburse the deposit).