Questions Answered: Is Recycling Worth It?

This is the second post in our ongoing series in which I’ll try to provide succinct, well-researched and satisfying answers to environmental questions. Today’s question comes from a friend of mine who asked “Is recycling good or bad?”. An avid recycler, she’d frequently been told that the pollution and GHG emissions from recycling were as bad as if the object had just been thrown out. Much of the information in this post comes from this Popular Mechanics article, so if you are looking for more information, it’s a good place to start.

The quick answer to this question is that recycling is unquestionably an environmental positive. Life-cycle analyses of recyclables have basically ended the academic argument on the environmental value of recycling. One of the least efficient recyclable materials is glass.   According to Washington based environmental consultant Jeffrey Morris, it takes 21% less energy to recycle glass than it does to manufacture the same glass from scratch. Recycled paper uses 45% less energy, plastic bottles use 76% less and aluminum products, which take a remarkable amount of energy to create from scratch, require 96% less energy to make from recycled materials. Overall, Morris found that it takes less than half the energy to manufacture products from a ton of recyclables than it does from virgin materials (10.4 million Btu to 23.4 million Btu).  So if you are only reading to this post for the answer to that simple question: there it is.

But I am going to dig a bit deeper. Obviously, if someone is asking this question, there must be some reason why people believe that recycling is actually worse for the environment than throwing it out. There appear to be three prevailing reasons for this.

1)  Out of Date or Incorrect Research: A lot of the distrust of recycling stems from two sources. The first was a New York Times piece published in 1996 titled “Recycling is Garbage”. The piece argued that recycling shouldn’t be a concern because the depletion of natural resources isn’t a major concern, and that the world would not run out of garbage space. Of course, the big flaw in citing this article today is that it was written when climate change wasn’t really a concern, and therefore the energy saved was not considered important. Once this is factored in, the environmental positives are undeniable.

The second source of distrust is an episode of Penn and Tellers “Bullshit”, which attacks recycling as not being cost effective and stated that recycling a plastic bottle uses more energy than creating one from scratch. With regards to the first criticism, this is a debate that continues today. However, the emerging concensus is currently tilting in favour of recycling, as we will see in the next section of this post.  The comment that plastic bottle recycling uses more energy is based on a failure to do proper research. Penn and Teller include the energy required to transport the recycled bottles to the plant as a part of the energy consumed, but they ignore the energy required to transport garbage to the landfill.

2) The Continuing Economic Debate: The difficulty with breaking down the economic debate is that the price of both disposal and recycling changes on a year-to-year and city-to-city level. In many places, recycling programs are still waiting for the private sector to catch up and create a market for the products. And therefore the price the municipality can get for a ton of recycled goods is currently lower than it is likely worth. However, even if you take a more negative view of the economics of recycling, it appears to cost roughly the same as simply dumping the goods in the landfill. And there is reason for optimism, as recycling is poised to only become more profitable in the future. There are multiple reasons for this. Increasing oil prices are making plastic recycling more and more profitable as the cost of the raw materials increases. The expanding economy of China is driving up the demand for recyclable materials which can be easily remanufactured, as the country lacks a plethora of raw materials and has many export based ships which would be returning to China empty if it was not for recycling. And recent improvements and streamlining of recycling centres should all spell increased recycling and improved recycling economics.

3) Environmentalists Wanting Better: In doing the research for this piece, I spent a bit of time browsing websites looking for a piece that was truly against recycling. I was hoping to find the most extreme anti-recycling argument I could find in hopes of understanding the other side of the issue. In this quest, I was only mildly successful. An argument on a random internet thread, without any citations, seemed to be the best I could find. However, I did find an incredible amount of anti-recycling messages which concluded with the basic message “Reducing or re-using is better”. It seems that much of the published distaste for recycling comes from environmentalists who would prefer that you either had not purchased the item in the first place, or that you find another way to use it. Or they attack the current trend of ‘downcycling’, where recyclable items are not remade into the same item but rather into an item that is likely not to be recycled a second time. An example of this is when the plastic in recycled pop bottles are used to make bath matts, or something similar, where the plastic is mixed in with other non-recyclable products almost ensuring that it will be thrown out. In the end, some of this downplaying of recycling will inevitably leak into mainstream culture.

As an aside, the most interesting fact I came across while doing research for this article came at the very end of the Popular Mechanics article. The article reported that a recent study found that 90% of what ends up in a landfill has economic value. Full disclosure: a quick Google search was unable to find the report in question, but based on my anecdotal evidence from working in a second-hand store, and my trust of Popular Mechanics as a source, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to find out that this is true. So perhaps the real question we should be asking is not whether we can afford to recycle. In today’s economy, and as resources get more and more scarce,  we should ask whether we can afford not to.

By: Stefan Hostetter

(This was a point that I was thinking about as I was writing but never really found a way to include. But it was reiterated by my editor so I am leaving it here)

Editors Note:

It seems like these kind of economic arguments are short-sighted without considering environmental externalities. That would require a lot more space and work, but even if corporations or municipalities were losing money on their recycling programs, that doesn’t mean they’re a bad idea on economic grounds. For instance, it might be more profitable for me to pump sludge from my sludge factory into public lakes, but the effect on other people is really negative. In that case, it might be a bad idea to get very invested in debates about whether pumping sludge into lakes is really more profitable for me, because profits aren’t the primary issue.