The Downsides Of Recycling (And What We Can Do About Them)

When do the costs - both financial and environmental - outweigh the rewards?

October 11, 2017
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We finish off the can of sparkling water, scoop out the last of the Greek yogurt, fork up the final greens from our salad box, and toss our trash straight into the…recycling bin. It feels good, doing our part for the environment. For a great many of us, recycling has become as second nature as, well, throwing our rubbish into the garbage.

But what happens from there to our cans and cardboard? How much good are we really doing when we sort out our plastics? As much as the thought can feel like an oil spill in our hearts and minds, is recycling actually helping?

Well, everything, as they say, comes with a cost. Even recycling.

Not all recyclables are equal.

Ten percent. Just 10 percent.

“Society’s best recycling rate is only 10%,” wrote Thomas Kinnaman, professor of economics at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, in an article for The Conversation. Kinnaman led an eye-opening 2014 study that examined the overall “social cost” of recycling in Japan, the country with the most comprehensive data available. Social costs, for Kinnaman, encompassed everything from city expenses to environmental impact to the moral satisfaction people feel from the act of recycling. And on balance, he concluded, it is most beneficial for both the environment and the economy—there’s no such thing as a free recycled lunch—to recycle only 10 percent of our waste.

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A recycling pile on Kyoto street in Kyoto, Japan (iStock)

That number will strike many as shockingly small. We are instructed to recycle as soon as we start school. PBS alone, for instance, offers parents and educators 15 interdisciplinary, interactive lesson plans, following kids from kindergarten through the fourth grade, to teach recycling and other related eco-friendly behaviors.

And we are shamed for not recycling as adults. SodaStream, which makes a machine that allows people to make their own sparkling water, released an ad in 2016 called “Shame or Glory.” It featured Game of Thrones characters—yes, the Mountain and Septa Unella—chastening a shopper for buying water packaged in single-serve, plastic containers.

For after all, when we recycle, we send less waste to landfills and incinerators, which can lead to water and air pollution. We conserve energy and natural resources, which would otherwise be extracted to create new goods, using fewer fossil fuels and emitting fewer greenhouse gases in the process. Plus, if Big Bird and Jon Snow do it, then well, recycling’s just gotta be good.

But as Kinnaman’s study found, it’s more complicated than that, and that’s because not all materials are equally recyclable.

We may think otherwise, though, due to the very way we recycle. Today, many of us are used to casting our major recyclables—glass, plastic, paper, and metal—into the big, all-in-one bins we wheel out to the curb every week. These bins were developed, in part, because the time and effort it takes to sort materials deter many people from recycling, not to mention that multiple-stream recycling puts additional energy-sucking, gas-coughing trucks on the road to handle different pickup schedules. Yet these very pro-recycling, all-in-one bins can give us the false impression that are recyclables are equivalent.

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“Although the optimal overall recycling rate may be only 10%, the composition of that 10% should contain primarily aluminum, other metals and some forms of paper, notably cardboard and other source of fiber,” Kinnaman wrote. “Optimal recycling rates for these materials may be near 100% while optimal rates of recycling plastic and glass might be zero.”

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) backs up Kinnaman. It found that, in 2014, the U.S. recycled and composted 89 million tons of municipal solid waste, the technical term for what we throw out. But 90 percent of those savings come from just aluminum and paper. Everything else, from plastic and glass to food, yard trimmings, and textiles, amount to a mere 0.2 percent in savings—virtually zero, as Kinnaman observes.

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Don’t despair too much: recycling absolutely does lower greenhouse gases, an unadulterated good. The aforementioned recycling efforts reduced over 181 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. Having difficulty sizing up that number? The EPA likens the reduction to taking over 38 million cars off the road.

But the disparity in savings between metal/paper and plastic/glass is alarming—think about how often you recycle bottles as opposed to aluminum cans. What gives? Let’s sort it out:

Metal deserves a medal.

Tin, iron, and steel are winners, but aluminum is a recycling champion. According to environmental scientists, it’s 100 percent recyclable, and even after multiple rounds of reuse, the quality of its metal doesn’t degrade. This makes aluminum highly valuable to manufacturers who purchase the recycled material for reuse.

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What’s more, recycling aluminum requires only about 5 percent of the energy it takes to mine and develop new, or “virgin,” aluminum, a very expensive and energy-intensive process.

Paper, Paper Everywhere

Recycling paper, whether newsprint or corrugated cardboard, is estimated to save only 40 percent of the energy required to make new supplies. And unlike aluminum, paper has diminishing returns; it deteriorates in quality each time it’s processed, making the value it can fetch on the market quite variable. Plus, a byproduct of recycling paper is a nasty sludge, which can be hazardous and is often landfilled.

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But we just consume so many paper products. In 2014, the EPA tallied that we recycled 44.4 million tons of paper and paperboard—nearly 50 percent of everything we recycled. That alone, calculates the EPA, took the equivalent of 29 million cars off the road that year.

A Glass Ceiling?

Twenty-nine million cars—compared to glass, which the EPA says removed only 175,000 cars. That’s definitely better than nothing, but when it comes to glass, we have to start weighing the costs against the benefits. Glass recycling, as with aluminum, is a closed-loop process; we get glass from recycling glass. But it’s very bulky and heavy, for one, which means more carbon emissions due to additional fuel and transportation. It also breaks, and broken glass can contaminate other recyclables, especially paper, sending whole loads of otherwise recyclable material to the landfill. Broken glass can also cause signifiant damage to recycling machinery—and workers.

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Many broken glass contaminations result from single-stream recycling—those same all-in-one bins meant to encourage our recycling. Single-stream systems also invite straight up trash, as many consumers will “recycle” extra garbage they’ve run out of room for in their trash bins, contaminating batches at high costs for municipal facilities and redirecting recyclables to landfills. Single-stream systems also invite so-called “wishful recycling,” where people think or hope things are recyclable but they aren’t, like lightbulbs or batteries.

The Problem With Plastic

One of the biggest contaminators is plastic bags, the very kind that many cities are banning from supermarkets to be greener—and save money. Recycling, which is largely carried out on the municipal level, is expensive, sometimes costing cities hundreds of dollars more per ton to process than landfilling. Plastic bags can get stuck in machines, increasing labor, maintenance, and, ultimately, costs. (Be sure to take your bags back to the grocery store, which ships them off to special recycling facilities.)

Plastic containers, like we enjoy our Greek yogurt out of, have a short life-cycle. They undergo something called “downcycling,” or a loss in their quality, and thus value, upon each subsequent recycling.

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Plastics are also highly subject to the whims of commodity markets, particularly given the swings in the price of oil, from which they are made. Remember, yesterday’s newspaper doesn’t magically become tomorrow’s coffee filter. Recycled products have to be bought and sold for that transformation to take place, and, depending on market fluctuations, it can often be cheaper for businesses to pay for virgin materials than acquire recycled ones. The economics of recycling is its own ecosystem, so to speak.

“It’s a whole process,” says John McGrane, Managing Director one of Ireland’s largest skip hire—or commercial and residential dumpster rental—companies. “You don’t think about it,” he says of the fate of the materials the average homeowner tosses into the the dumpster. “But I think about it.”

McGrane’s business—which operates in a country that heavily levies landfilling due to space constraints—is positioned at just one node in the larger web of the recycling industry. He helps us glimpse how complex it is. “I separate it,” he says of the stone, soil, timber, and other materials his customers are discarding. “All my timber would go to a recycling facility … They would shred it and turn it into a product. That’s just one element. I’d send all my metal to a facility in Wicklow,” which is south of Dublin. “They would then go ahead and sort it even more. They would compound it and send it on to China, to Holland. Holland would take the material and put it in the big iron refineries, which would go on into what’s in your dishwasher.”

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Stacks of compounded aluminumthis is step four out of a five step process, according to McGrady (iStock)

“It’s indeed a business,” he says. “We all have to make money out of it.”

Plastic containers also come in all shapes and sizes—and numbers. You know, the ones in that little triangle of arrows hidden away on your soda bottle? These are Resin Identification Codes, and, generally speaking, they identify what kind of plastic the container is made from. There are seven different plastic resins, each containing different chemicals and requiring different temperatures to be melted down. Municipal curbside recycling programs widely vary in their capacities to handle different plastics, and a low capacity can lead to contamination of recycling steams. When the batch gets broken down, dangerous toxins can leach into our food, air, water, and subsequent materials made from the recycled plastic.

Take Cincinnati, Ohio. “Number 5 plastic, for example, is the famous one,” says Matthew Bauman, a university instructor in the city, whose recycling program often flummoxes him. “It’s the yogurt container and the city doesn’t [recycle] them. You just have to throw them away unless you take them to Whole Foods,” which sends them off for special treatment. “I should take them to Whole Foods, but I don’t want a bunch of mouldering yogurt containers until I have them time to go there.”

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Recycling receptacles at a Whole Foods store (via Neurotic City)

He reads, with a mix of confusion and exasperation, the guidance Cincinnati provides on the recycling page of its its city website: “If you crush the jug/bottle, you can screw the lid back on for recycling. Labels ok. To be considered a bottle or a jug, the mouth (top) of the container must be smaller than the bottom.”

“There’s a lot of mental effort partly because of this partial program the city has. There are these other contingencies about what you can recycle and criteria about them, and every time you go to recycle you’re looking at it and wondering.” And wondering, as we’ve seen, can lead to a lot of wishful recycling, sending good, clean recyclables right back to the dump.

Our brains aren’t helping.

Bauman’s experiences highlight just how psychological recycling is.

“Recycling is a classic example of ‘lessening the contradictions’,” he says. “You recycle and so you feel good. ‘I’m doing things for the environment. Everything’s fine.’ But the effect that is has on your sense of well-being about the environment and what you’re doing to avert global catastrophe is way out of proportion to the effect that it actually has on the environment.”

Recycling, as Bauman points out, is fraught with cognitive dissonance. We hold one belief, i.e., recycling helps the environment, in direct contradiction to other facts, i.e., whether or not our one measly yogurt container gets rubbished or recycled does vanishingly little to conserve our planet in the grand scheme of things. What’s more, our brains-on-recycling can ironically create even more waste.

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Weighty Matters

Professor Remi Trudell and some colleagues conducted several social experiments in 2016 to better understand how our thinking affects our recycling—and it turns out recycling can have quite the effect on our thinking. In one study, they told participants that they could use as much of a product as they wanted when tasked with wrapping gifts or solving math problems on scrap paper. Half of the people were told they could recycle the materials they used; the other half, they’d be thrown away.

Their findings? People in the recycling group consumed far more resources than their counterparts. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Trudell explains: “Conserving resources in one domain may lead you to waste resources in another—in effect, giving yourself a pass because of your prior good behavior—a phenomenon known in social science as ‘moral licensing.’”

(Moral licensing also helps explain why dieting can backfire. We eat healthily one day and reward ourselves the next, gobbling down a bunch of calories that undo all our previous day’s efforts.)

And so when we go to the grocery store, if we see goods that come in recyclable packaging, we might license ourselves to buy more than we otherwise would have. This simply puts more refuse into the stream, which requires more energy to process and repurpose. Our minds themselves are a hidden cost of recycling.

We need to go back to the source.

If our very brains are part of the recycling problem, what are we supposed to do? First and foremost, we should push for changes upstream. Many environmental and economic experts urge what’s called extended producer responsibility (EPR). EPR laws would require manufacturers to recollect the plastic, paper, and other materials they package their goods in, ideally incentivizing them to recycle them right back into production. Such laws would cut back on waste overall and and ease the burden—and costs—of recycling on cities.

We should also continue innovating recycling technologies. McGrane, for his part, has had his facility’s machines “purpose-built” to improve the sorting of materials. The better sorted his waste, the more he can send off for recycling—and the more he can save on the steep levies Ireland places on landfill. Irish landfills, McGrane says, are private entities. They charge 45 euro (over $50) for each ton that crosses their gates. The Irish government then tacks on 75 euro (about $88) more per ton for the dumper. “If you’re doing 50,000 tons a year … That’s why it’s so important to extract every bit out of the skip” for recycling.

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A landfill in Ireland. Seven Irish landfills reached capacity in 2016, according to the Irish Times. (Alan Betson/The Ireland Times)

Kinnaman would presumably agree with Ireland’s system. For the U.S., he’s proposed up to a tax $15 per ton of waste to help mitigate the costs our waste management has on nature and society.

McGrane is also extensively looking into SRF, or solid recovered fuel, which converts landfill waste into fuel. “It’s pretty cutting edge. It’s going to be a big investment, but in the long run, it’s the only way for [our] company” to stay profitable.

Scientists are also making breakthroughs not just with new technology, but with nature itself. In 2016, Japanese researchers identified bacteria that can eat plastic, which holds true, eco-friendly promise for the future of the recycling.

Reduce, reuse, and reconnect with nature.

Finally, we can all make changes at the ultimate source: ourselves. Rather than recycling wishfully, we need to recycle intelligently. This means taking the time to properly sort our waste and ensuring we faithfully recycle high-yield items like aluminum and paper. But it also means remembering those other two R’s we are taught about alongside recycling in primary school: reducing and reusing. We may not all turn our old yogurt containers into storage for our craft supplies, but we can reconsider purchasing so many single-serve packages in the first place.

And Emer Sheahan, a psychologist, has just the way to help us jumpstart this process: ecopsychology. “Ecopsychology is really about the relationship between people and their emotions and using nature as a way of helping them,” she says. “We’ve lost touch because of the use of technology. A disconnect’s been created, therefore we don’t care as much about environment.”

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Fourth Score

Sheahan continues: “How we relate to others is a reflection of how we relate to ourselves. It’s the same with the environment. The more conscious we become of our own selves—we act that way towards nature. That’s what’s going to genuinely create the values” that make us not just effective recyclers, but more responsible consumers in the first place.

So, recycle. But the next time you’re at the store, don’t just ask yourself, “Is this product recyclable?” Think of the hidden costs of recycling and ask yourself: “Do I need this product? Is there a way for me to get around its packaging?” Less can really do more—both for you and the environment.

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