Why recycling can’t save the environment

recycling containerNo one talked or thought about recycling on that first Earth Day in 1970.

Municipal recycling programs got off to a rocky start, but the recycling rate rose to 25% in the 1990s. In recent years it has stagnated at about 35%.

Some cities, including New York, want to stop using landfills entirely, which requires a 100% recycling rate.

That would be bad for the local economy. It might be bad for the environment!

Not all recyclables are created equal

Processing plastics for recycling

Processing plastics for recycling

Here are two studies that fly in the face of conventional wisdom. Environmental policy ought to be based on good science, both in terms of ecology and economics. The advancement of science depends on work that challenges earlier conclusions.

It also depends on verification of that work through replication it its results.

I do not offer these studies as finished science, but as fairly new ideas that environmentalists ought to take seriously.

In principal, recycling takes a waste and makes it into a resource for making something new. It no longer takes up space in a landfill. It reduces the need for logging, mining, or drilling for natural resources and their high environmental cost.

On the other hand, it requires about twice as much labor, machinery, and other resources as landfills. Thomas Kinnaman claims to have led the first ever study of when its benefits do and do not justify these added costs.

It concludes that a recycling rate of anything more than 10% does more harm than good to both the environment and the economy.

First, traditional estimates overstate the economic and environmental costs of operating a landfill or incinerator. According to Kinnaman’s estimates, meeting todays stringent environmental standards adds as much as $50 per ton to tipping fees.

The study values the cost of remaining air and water pollutants at $5 per ton. Landfills depress nearby property values by about $4 per ton.

These last two costs do not appear on any facility’s balance sheets, and therefore constitute external costs of $9 per ton. This figure contrasts dramatically with earlier economists’ estimates of anywhere from $67 to $280 per ton.

A tax of $10 per ton, in addition to the tipping fees, he says, would completely offset cost of the negative aspects of landfills.

Second, recycling costs municipal governments twice as much as landfilling. It requires extra labor and machinery. It also costs more to transport sorted recyclables to China than to send them to the landfill.

Third, the primary benefit of recycling comes when producing products from recycled materials costs less in economic and environmental terms than mining virgin materials. These costs are measured through life cycle analysis of the physical quantity of various pollutants and estimates of the cost of the damage of each individual pollutant to to the environment.

The EPA has estimated that recycling municipal solid waste removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere equivalent to the emissions of 39 million cars. Recycling advocates often cite that figure, but neglect to dig deeper.

More than 90% of these benefits come from metals and certain paper products. Recycling one ton of these materials saves three tons of carbon dioxide.

Recycling a ton of plastic saves about a ton of carbon dioxide. Glass, food waste, and yard waste require more than a ton of recycling to get a ton of greenhouse benefits.

Mining metals and preparing them for production entail substantial environmental costs. So does logging for production of paper. Manufacture of plastic and glass from raw materials, Kinnaman suggests, has significantly less environmental impact than metal or paper.

Therefore, he concludes, the optimal recycling rate for metal and some forms of paper nears 100%, while that for plastic and glass nears zero.

Kinnaman’s analysis of plastic overlooks the fact that it lasts about forever. He counts the environmental impact of its manufacture and neglects to consider the environmental impact of its very existence in the waste stream. It also overlooks embedded water in plastic; it requires much less water to recycle plastic than to manufacture it. Nonetheless, his research breaks new ground, and recycling advocates need to take it seriously.

Economic downsides of recycling

recycling ready to sell

Processed recyclables, sorted and ready to sell

Comparing the economics of recycling vs landfills likewise paints a grim picture.

I just received a survey from the City of Greensboro, North Carolina.

Among other things it asks if the city should initiate drop-off sites and/or curbside collection of food waste and switch yard-waste service to the same method used to collect trash and recyclables.

That would require providing at least one new color of waste cart and additional sorting by residents. Not to mention the fuel required for the fleet of trucks to collect it.

As cities choose to add more and more materials to recycling efforts, they add more costs. Plastic creates special problems. PVC (no. 3) often looks like PET (no. 1). A little PVC will ruin an entire batch of PET for recycling. Recyclers must treat it, along with some other plastics, not as a resource but as a contaminant.

Recycling, as an industrial process, creates its own pollution. Like other industries, recyclers must spend money and effort to minimize emissions.

CEO David P. Steiner of Waste Management has observed, “Trying to turn garbage into gold costs a lot more than expected. We need to ask ourselves: What is the goal here?”

Recycling cans and high-quality paper accomplishes much greater reduction in carbon emissions than recycling yogurt containers or sending trucks around to pick up separated food waste.

John Tierney claims that fear of running out of landfill space is greatly exaggerated. He claims that 0.1% of land available for grazing would accommodate all the trash Americans will generate in the next millennium.

It has become nearly impossible to gain approval for new landfills in cities, but rural communities often welcome them. It costs more money to transport trash from a city to a landfill in another county, but not as much as it costs to send bales of plastic to China!

He also suggests that offsetting the emissions caused by one person traveling round trip between New York and London would require recycling about 40,000 plastic bottles in coach, and more like 100,000 in first class.

The EPA’s life-cycle calculation for plastic recycling doesn’t include the water required to rinse it out. In fact, think of washing plastic in water heated by an electric water heater using electricity generated from coal. It actually results in more carbon in the atmosphere from recycling than from landfilling.

Finally, according to Tierney, recycling makes little business sense because it is so labor intensive. The real cost of labor has increased over a span of centuries while the real cost of raw materials has declined. It actually costs more to recycle most kinds of material than to bury it in the ground.

How about that? Recycling as practiced in the US today is not sustainable! Yet in the name of sustainability, politicians promise more and more of it.

It’s not wrong to recycle. We’re doing it wrong.

recycling dropoff center

Recycling dropoff center, Kansas City, Missouri

Materials collected in municipal recycling programs have become a commodity. The programs need buyers for what they collect in order to justify their existence.

The supply of recyclables flows to where demand is highest, which is often foreign markets like China.

The price of recyclables follows the laws of supply and demand and fluctuates greatly.

When demand drops, municipalities must either warehouse what they collect until prices turn around or else send to the landfill.

In other words, we need to make a distinction between what’s collected as recyclable and what actually gets recycled.

Trade organizations for manufacturers of plastic packaging have become recycling’s leading advocates and financial sponsors. They have helped establish the basic infrastructure for plastic recycling. It insures them a steady stream of plastic that can be turned into more packaging.

Only a small fraction of plastic packaging makes it into the recycling stream. Recycling does little to halt the process of pumping oil to make new plastic.

Rising recycling rates also do nothing to offset soaring consumption rates. Americans consume vast quantities of disposable, and probably unnecessary goods. Dutifully separating out the recyclables and hauling them to the curb may feel good, but it does not solve the underlying problem of waste. And only a little more than half of cities in the U.S. even offer curbside recycling.

Economists are now beginning to advocate shifting responsibility for recycling from municipalities to manufacturers. That would prevent cities from a serious but common miscalculation. They expand recycling infrastructure in times of high commodity prices. Then they’re stuck with material they can’t sell when prices fall a few years later.

A new concept, Extended Producer Responsibility  (EPR), requires manufacturers to take back their packaging. Preferably, they will reuse it or recycle it themselves.

They could continue to rely on municipal curbside collection and existing recycling companies. But taxpayers would no longer bear the cost. Or they could devise another collection method and build their own in-house recycling infrastructure.

Germany has had EPR laws on the books since 1991. Before the end of the decade, they had reduced the total volume of packaging by about 33 pounds per capita. Companies redesigned packaging to use less material in its manufacture and started to move away from plastic. Germany now recycles 62% of its packaging.

Other countries have since introduced EPR laws, as have some Canadian provinces. The consumer packaged goods industry will oppose such laws in the US, but with the collapse of commodity markets, governments will find them more attractive. After all, they remove recyclables from the category of commodities cities have to sell.

It is a mistake to think of EPR laws as some kind of tax. Intelligently implemented, they enable companies to take back resources they have used and do something more with them. Finance it as they will, they will certainly find a way to benefit from it economically.

Many companies are beginning to look at renewable energy as a benefit to the bottom line quite apart from government mandates. Some have also started their own take-back programs

Walmart and Coca Cola, for example, have ambitious plans to increase their use of recycled plastic, but struggle to find adequate supply of it at a reasonable cost. Some combination of a take-back program and better design of packaging could solve the supply problems.

Another solution specifically for plastic waste is to use it for fuel, either by incineration or pyrolysis. That at least uses plastic instead of hiding it in the ground. It also results in emission of toxic chemicals that requires mitigation.

We can’t solve our waste management problems with unsustainable recycling practices. We must learn to waste less in the first place. We express the 3 Rs of reduce, reuse, recycle in order of importance. Recycle only what’s left after you have maxed out on the other two.

Photo credits:
Recycling container. Some rights reserved by City of St. Petersburgr
Plastic recycling process. Some rights reserved by Argonne National Laboratory
Processed recycling. Some rights reserved by Michigan Municipal League (MML)
Recycling dropoff center. KCMO


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