Everything You Know About Recycling is Wrong. Well, most everything.

Americans have been dutifully sorting and cleaning their trash for decades. Has it all been for naught?

Jonathan Clark
May 11, 2019 · 11 min read
Photo by Jay Clark on Unsplash

Recycling programs are, with a few exceptions, largely a waste of time, money, and resources. In its current configuration, many programs are unsustainable sans large government subsidies and in many cases, a bit of a fraud.

Wait, what?

For many Americans, the idea of throwing away a can, plastic bottle, or newspaper, is as foreign a concept as using a pay phone to place a call. But as you clean and sort your trash into your blue bin, how confident are you that recycling is, in fact, helping your community and protecting the environment?

If you haven’t yet reached forty, it’s likely that you’re pretty confident your efforts are helping to save the planet. An entire generation — today’s largest — was raised on the mantra of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle! And given that recycling is a virtue-signaling act that requires little effort — other than cleaning one’s rubbish — it’s easy to understand the appeal.

The inconvenient truth is that, with few exceptions, mandatory recycling programs do little to help preserve the environment and in fact, many recycling processes may do more harm than good. And surprise! A growing portion of the trash deposited for recycling ends up in landfills.

But the value of recycling, in many cases, is difficult to measure because it’s a complex subject with many variables. Indeed, all recycling is not equal.

Let’s begin with mandatory versus voluntary recycling.

Voluntary recycling has been part of society for as long as humans have been discarding unwanted items. In the 1930s, many Americans survived the Great Depression by collecting and selling scraps of metal, rags, and other items found in trash dumps. At that time, reuse and recycle were an economic necessity. In fact, during World War II, recycling scrap metal and even grease played an important role in helping to create weaponry for the war effort.

When I was (much) younger, my father would bring home trash bags from the bowling alley he managed. Every Saturday morning, my brother and I would separate all the aluminum cans from the trash. Then, once a month, my father would take us to the Reynolds Aluminum collection site for redemption. We didn’t earn much, but it was enough for candy, record albums, and other items my parents refused to buy. (Yes, that was a seriously date-weighted sentence.)

Indeed, long before it became a religion, manufacturers were already recycling their products, many through post-consumer collection centers. Consider that to survive in a competitive marketplace, businesses must take into consideration all costs in a product lifecycle. At one time, labor was less costly than materials, which encouraged manufacturers to build products that would last for longer periods of time. Today, labor costs are considerably more than materials, which helps explain why many of the products we buy are not built to be repaired but discarded. By following this business model, manufacturers are conserving scarce resources — labor.

Even without being told or forced, people will recycle materials — when there is intrinsic value in the proposition. And this point is key to understanding the economics of mandatory recycling programs.

In most American communities today, mandatory recycling programs involve curbside pickup of discarded items that may, or may not, be recyclable. One such type of collection is multiple-stream, in which recyclable items are cleaned and sorted into bins for paper, glass, aluminum cans, plastics, and cardboard. But the most common is a single-stream program in which all recyclable trash is placed in a single bin or can.

Mandatory recycling programs require specialized trucks to collect and transport materials to sorting facilities where everything gets separated. Most importantly, these programs require workers, as much of the process is still labor-intensive. Certainly, automation has made the separation process more efficient in recent years, but labor continues to make up the largest share of the costs involved with mandatory recycling programs.

Labor costs are just one factor that makes today’s recycling more expensive than sending trash to a landfill. And it’s one resource that keeps growing in value, while the value of the recovered materials is trending down.

Recyclable materials are not equal.

The complexity of recycling first manifests itself in the different waste products we attempt to convert into reusable materials. Processing materials like glass and plastics tend to consume much more energy and other resources than processing metals or paper.

In fact, relatively little plastic waste can be recycled because there are so many types of plastic — all with different chemical compositions which in many cases, cannot be comingled. Only two — polyethylene terephthalate (PET, used for synthetic fibers and water bottles) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE, used for jugs, bottle caps, water pipes) — are routinely recycled. Additionally, most plastic waste is contaminated with paper and ink, and separating plastics from other recyclables and different types of plastics is a difficult, labor-intensive operation.

The other factor impacting the business model of recycling plastics is the low price of crude oil. Plastics are made from petroleum and as the price of oil remains low, the cost of making plastic from virgin materials is less costly than from recycled bottles. Moreover, it’s more appealing to manufacturers because the chemical composition can be more easily determined. Additionally, mixed plastics are likely to present manufacturing issues such as rapid degradation.

The benefits of paper recycling are difficult to determine as not all paper is equal and, depending on the facility, estimates of energy savings compared to making virgin paper vary widely from twenty to seventy percent. Moreover, fossil fuels are used in the production of recycled paper while the energy source for creating virgin paper is often waste products from timber.

And consider that paper recycling requires different processes to remove the ink that employs detergents and chemicals, which creates waste that eventually makes its way into the water stream. Processing printed paper from laser printers and copy machines is particularly challenging as these machines employ polymers rather than ink — which is burned onto the paper — and often involves harmful chemicals and strong solvents. Furthermore, processing recycled paper produces a solid waste sludge which ends up in a landfill or incinerator, where its burning can emit harmful byproducts.

Recycling glass can be a tricky proposition even though it’s a non-toxic, inert material — even when we consider that when glass is recycled it produces an energy savings of approximately thirty percent compared to manufacturing glass with sand.

The problem, say manufacturers, is that getting materials in a clean, furnace-ready form requires a lot of processing. Given that the majority of curbside collection in the U.S. is single-stream, glass is comingled with aluminum, paper, all sorts of plastics, newsprint, and other paper refuse, all of which provide opportunities for glass to be contaminated. Additionally, common green glass bottles and jars are typically not compatible with window and other clear glass, which further limits recycling opportunities.

Consider that glass is the second-most popular household recyclable by weight — ten times heavier than the same volume of aluminum cans or plastic bottles. Transportation costs alone often discount any value that may be recovered from recycling to nothing. Moreover, glass often gets broken during collecting and transportation, which can contaminate other recyclables, like sticking to cardboard, if it’s collected through a single-stream collection.

In the case of recycling metals, especially aluminum, there is empirical evidence to justify not only the cost benefit but the environmental benefit. It takes about ninety-five percent less energy to make a new can out of recycled aluminum than to make can sheeting by mining bauxite and smelting the ore.

The cost benefits vary.

Make no mistake; recycling is a business. And profits are what make recycling a viable enterprise. For many years, recycling has proven profitable — for waste companies. For municipalities, it’s been a different story. For decades, and in much of the country, recycling programs have been able to break even or even turn a slight profit, until recently.

Since the early 1990s, China imported much of the world’s spent plastics, paper, and aluminum to feed its manufacturing hunger; it was not able to produce the raw materials needed. What made this partnership particularly attractive to American waste companies was the free shipping they enjoyed from packing their materials aboard containers that arrived full of Chinese exports like new sneakers and televisions, but often had to return empty. In fact, shipping a ton of waste materials from Los Angeles to Asia was often cheaper than shipping it to a recycling plant in Washington. By 2017, the single largest export from the Port of Los Angeles was wastepaper.

But all of that changed in 2018 when China announced they would only accept materials that are ninety-five percent uncontaminated. Single-stream collection programs not only increased the recycling participation rate in the U.S. but also the contamination rate. Items such as Christmas trees lights and lawn mower engines are often thrown in collection cans with recyclables and have to be sorted out (yep, lawn mower engines are not recyclable).

But more importantly is the contamination from comingling items like glass and cardboard — or just the types of cardboard and the glue and ink it contains — which can make recycling prohibitive. Consider that the oils in a pizza box ruin the neighboring cardboard in a bin because it can’t be separated from the paper fiber.

The cost of transporting materials can often be a deal-breaker. In some communities, recycling plants are located close to population centers where it makes sense to collect glass and other heavy items. But when those heavy items have to be transported long distance, its value diminishes quickly.

In municipalities across the country, recycling has become a money-losing proposition. In places like Philadelphia and New York City, where recyclables were selling for $67 a ton, they are now paying their waste contractors as much as $170 per ton to keep recycling programs going. In fact, New York City has stopped collecting glass altogether because it’s too costly.

Even before China changed gears on recycling, New York City managed to recycle just forty-four percent of the materials collected by city recycling programs, with the remainder sent to landfills, according to data from the Department of Sanitation’s 2013 Residential Waste Characterization Study.

According to a report in the New York Times, approximately half of the recyclables collected in Philadelphia are now incinerated and converted to energy. All of the recyclable materials collected at the Memphis International Airport are sent to a landfill and even in the greenest of states, Oregon, thousands of tons of material left curbside for recycling now go to landfills.

While fees vary from state to state, the average landfill tipping fee in the U.S. is about $60 per ton. And when all costs are factored into recycling — with the exception of metals — it’s undeniable that simply burying our trash is far less costly than recycling.

Saving the environment?

For many advocates, costs are not a factor when it comes to recycling. We’re told the environmental benefits are worth spending a little extra on trash pickup. But is recycling more environmentally friendly than simply burying trash in a landfill?

The data on this topic is littered (excuse the pun) with bias. Do a little digging and you’ll find voluminous data from advocates and rent-seekers justifying the environmental benefits of recycling. But when you slice it up, it really all depends on the type of material being recycled.

It’s critical to understand that recycling is a manufacturing process, and therefore it too has an environmental impact. While there is empirical evidence to support the environmental, cost, and energy savings of recycling ferrous metals; glass, paper, and plastic are more dubious.

As we saw earlier, the process of recycling paper is wrought with environmental challenges from hazardous emissions to the disposal of waste product. One of the long-enduring myths surrounding the supposed environmental benefits of recycling paper is that we save our forests. What is often neglected is that paper is milled from trees grown specifically for paper. Indeed, we grow many more trees than we harvest and contrary to popular belief, the total volume of net growth outpaces tree volume being cut.

Although the energy savings of recycling paper can be quite substantial — depending on the facility — compared to the production of virgin paper, the true energy savings can be controversial. That’s because the type of energy used in recycling involves fossil fuels while virgin paper production employs timber waste products.

Undoubtedly, the recycling process uses resources and energy — mostly powered by fossil fuels — from the curbside pickup of your blue bins and transportation to a sorting facility to the manufacturing process that turns waste into usable materials. And we shouldn’t discount the requisite production of additional vehicles and facilities which require natural resources that may not have otherwise been used.

Landfills get a bad rap.

Colorado’s Red Rock Canyon Open Space is pristine conservation site with trails, climbing rocks, and picnic areas. But at one time, it was the site of quarries, gravel pits, a gold refining mill, and a fifty three-acre landfill. In New York, one of the world’s largest landfills is being transformed into the 2,200-acre Freshkills Park. At nearly three times the size of Central Park, it’s the largest park to be developed in New York City in more than one hundred years. And in many places across the country, shopping malls and Walmarts sit atop old landfills.

Landfills are not just holes in the ground to be filled with trash. A modern landfill employs several technologies to ensure that the waste stays put and any escaping emissions are properly managed. Today’s landfills are well-engineered and managed facilities located, designed, operated, and monitored to ensure compliance with federal regulations. At one time, many landfills in America were nasty places you wouldn’t want to build anything near. But that was a long time ago.

And we’re not running out of land to bury our trash.

Estimates abound, but even at the most liberal calculations, the solid waste generated by Americans over the next one hundred years would fit in a landfill the size of Woodward County, Oklahoma, or roughly one hundred feet deep and sixty miles on each side. For perspective, this is slightly larger the Freshkills landfill.

But we don’t bury all of our trash in one place, do we? And what’s one person’s trash is another’s treasure. In dense, urban areas, where real estate comes at a premium, it rarely makes sense to use valuable property to store trash. But in a large swath of the country, that’s not a problem. In fact, many communities welcome landfills in their backyard. Well, maybe not literally in their backyard.

Landfills are welcomed in places like rural Alabama because they provide economic benefits in terms of taxes paid, fees, and jobs. Each landfill (depending on size) typically contributes millions of dollars in annual economic benefit to the community it serves and creates dozens, if not hundreds of jobs.

Moreover, methane captured from landfills is a renewable energy that can fuel vehicles or help power the electricity grid. According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration, waste-based energy makes up more than five percent of America’s renewable energy.

So, don’t feel bad when you toss something in the trash.

Sometimes recycling makes sense, but it’s difficult to justify most mandatory recycling programs as they exist today. It’s time to examine the science, economics, and environmental benefits of the recycling mania through a critical lens.

Simply demanding that something be recycled absent scientific reasoning has helped to create this giant placebo that makes people feel good, but its true value is dubious at best.

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