A lot of emphasis is often put on recycling as a way to help the environment and even to help reduce global warming. Unfortunately this often results in failure to address the real problem, and in some cases, recycling actually makes things worse. Of course, this doesn't mean that all recycling is bad, useless, or harmful, but mostly that we have our priorities out of order.
A common slogan is "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" and this slogan essentially gets it right. Notice that the "recycle" part of the slogan is the last step, or put another way, the last resort. We should only consider the last step, once we have fully applied the first two.
The first step is "reduce" and should be widely applied. Excessive consumption, rampant in the West, is obviously one of the main drivers of pollution and global warming as well as of resource depletion. The issue isn't simply a lot of extra junk that ends up in landfills. There is an entire chain of waste generated by overconsumption.
First, there are all the raw materials that must be obtained in order to make a given product. This raw material must be obtained using various methods, depending on the nature of the product, which include mining, fossil fuel extraction, and the harvesting of trees. In the first two cases, this involves the use of non-renewable resources. While the third is renewable, it may or may not be sustainable, depending on the source of the wood and the forest management techniques being used.
In order for these raw materials to be obtained, a large scale industrial process is needed. This process, especially in mining and oil extraction, can be a large source of pollution itself, but even more importantly, this production consumes a large amount of energy, and in almost all cases, this is fossil fuel based energy. For some energy sources, this can be extreme (the Canadian tar sands, for example).
Now, this is just the beginning. Once extracted, the raw materials must be transported, often halfway around the world, which consumes even more energy, again almost exclusively from fossil fuels. Then there is the manufacturing process, which generates more pollution, and can consume considerable more additional energy. Finally, the finished products must then be shipped again (and once again, sometimes halfway around the world) to be sold. This consumes more energy still. Finally most of these products are purchased individually, through the use of personal transportation, consuming, yet again, more energy and producing yet more pollution.
The vast majority of consumption in the West is unnecessary, perhaps as much as ninety percent. This can easily be seen in any typical family household with children in the United States, for example. It is compounded by the fact that many items are disposable, and those that aren't explicitly so are still often replaced unnecessarily at frequent intervals.
This should make clear how any reduction, even a modest one, has a huge impact on reducing pollution, the burning of fossil fuels, and the production of greenhouse gases. This is because of all the links in the long chain described above.
The second step is "reuse", and it is the next best approach once all possible reduction has been done. It can even assist in reduction since reuse of products means new ones don't need to be manufactured and shipped around the world. The vast over production and over consumption of the past fifty years also means we have an extremely large pool of products (everything from appliances, to clothes, to toys, to cars) that can serve our needs for many years without requiring anything new to be made.
Within the idea of "reuse" we should also include simply "use longer". As much as possible we can eliminate the use of disposable products in favour of longer lasting reusable products. We should encourage the manufacture of more reliable products that are not designed to fail or become obsolete, though we should only purchase these once the supply of reusable items has become depleted.
Another goal of reuse should be not simply the reuse of whole products, but once a product has reached the end of its life, the parts should be reused, either to fix other similar products, or to build alternative products. The reuse of parts can also be done locally, reducing the need for more transportation.
Once we have fully applied the steps of "reduce" and "reuse", only then should we consider the final step, "recycle". In the case of some products, it is possible to recycle them for a reasonable cost and without consuming too much energy. In many cases, however, recycling can actually consume more energy than simply making the item from scratch. In this situation recycling can cause a net harm to the environment.
Before any recycling project is established, an analysis should be done to ensure that the recycling process doesn't consume more energy or produce more pollution than the making of a new version of the product would. In such cases, recycling should be actively pursued and public participation should be promoted.
Through the wide application of reduction and reuse, vast improvements to the environment are possible. It is even possible atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide could actually be reduced. The limited case of "good" recycling, while important, is a very small percentage of the impact that can be achieved through reduction and reuse. On the whole, recycling, and the promotion of recycling over reduction and reuse, is frighteningly self destruction.