If we assume that just half the US households recycle regularly and spend 10 minutes a week rinsing and setting aside the recyclables, we are looking at over half a billion person-hours of time invested annually. Add to this governmental involvement and subsidies, and recycling may just be the one big thing we do for the environment as a country.
But do we really know what happens once the bins are emptied into the recycling trucks?
One way to look at the environmental benefits of recycling is through the greenhouse gas emissions saved. Recycling in the US saves a modest 2.7 percent of total national emissions, based on 2014 data from the Environmental Protection Agency. Three-quarters of those savings come from just paper and paperboard.
Just adding steel, aluminum and other metals to the mix would extract 89 percent of the emissions savings from less than 60 percent of the recyclables by weight.
Plastics, which are ubiquitous in our society but notoriously difficult to recycle, account for fewer than two percent of the emissions savings from recycling. Other materials such as glass and organic waste offer even less of an environmental return relative to their weight when recycled or composted.
The economics are not friendly to recycling, so closing the materials loop is difficult at best. The supply of virgin materials typically far exceeds the supply of recycled materials and global demand is usually large enough to consume all available production. Prices are then determined by virgin materials and there is generally no cost advantage to using recycled materials in new production since environmental benefits are not reflected in prices.
Plus, the scale economies in virgin production cannot be easily replicated in the more spatially diverse and labor-intensive recycling processes. The market has adjusted to this by exporting a significant part of the paper and plastic waste to countries with lower labor costs, but that may be changing as China begins to tighten the import of waste.
So what we are left with is a rather unsatisfactory system that survives probably because the idea of recycling our waste into new products is a comforting one in a throw-away society.
If we could design a more effective system, we would want to get the price signals right. A meaningful price on carbon could make recycled materials more competitive due to the emissions savings and could trigger a virtuous business cycle that increases the volume of recyclables collected and profitably processed.
In the absence of carbon pricing or a tax on virgin materials, it would make more sense to simply maximize the benefits of recycling while reducing cost and effort by limiting it to as few materials as possible. The materials that deliver most of the environmental benefits are paper and metals. These are also the easiest to sort and process into new products.
Since paper waste is largely generated in urban areas, we could locate highly automated recycling plants close to where the waste is generated. Instead of exporting the waste, we could be processing the recyclables in the US at a competitive cost.
Not recycling plastic might seem like a radical step, but recycling has never been the answer to the large amounts of plastics we use and discard each year. Taking recycling out of the equation would have the added benefit of making our plastic pollution more explicit to both consumers and producers.
While technologies like biodegradable plastics may be viable in the future, reducing and reusing plastics remain the best options today. When plastic inevitably turns into waste, we should send 100 percent of it to landfill and stop subsidizing it under the guise of curbside recycling.
It is time to take in the lessons of our long-running recycling experiment, and design a more efficient and targeted system. We also need to confront the enormous amounts of waste that we generate and acknowledge that recycling as we know it today is not the antidote to all the raw materials and energy expended on single-use products in our society.