It started with a myth in the late 1970s that the United States was running out of room at its landfills, and it was fueled by dire predictions of the Great Pacific garbage patch. Many communities started voluntary recycling programs in the 1980s, and curbside pick-up became a common site across America in the 1990s. Today, there are more than 9,000 curbside recycling programs with most providing containers for co-mingled – or mixed — recyclables.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of the 250 million tons of household trash Americans threw out in 2010, 85 million tons were diverted from landfills with recycling. The EPA says that savings to the environment is comparable to removing the emissions of 33 million passenger cars.
Whether or not that is true, Americans do like to recycle. A recent survey for SC Johnson found that 75 percent of respondents say they feel good when they recycle, and 29 percent of respondents admit to feeling guilty when they don’t put something in the recycle bin.
That guilt is somewhat tempered by age, though. The same survey found that 30 percent of people age 18 to 30 don’t recycle at all, while 57 percent of adults 55 years and older say they recycle on a daily basis. Those Baby Boomers tend to be college graduates who live in the Northeast and the West.
Many people who don’t recycle admit that they are unsure about what to recycle. Half of the respondents say that when they are unsure if the item can be recycled, they just throw it away with their regular trash.
But the question is: Are most of the things we recycle – all those bottles and cans and newspapers, for instance – really just ending up in a landfill somewhere? And is the cost of running municipal recycling programs worth the cost?
Surprisingly, the controversial view that recycling does not work was first posed in an article by John Tierney in The New York Times back in 1996. Tierney wrote: “Mandatory recycling programs…offer mainly short-term benefits to a few groups — politicians, public relations consultants, environmental organizations, waste-handling corporations — while diverting money from genuine social and environmental problems. Recycling may be the most wasteful activity in modern America: a waste of time and money, a waste of human and natural resources.”
While the article was debunked by environmentalists and caused little change other than heated conversation, it made some valid points that should be considered today.
Though solid-waste disposal is a challenge, the vast United States offers plenty of room for landfills. Some communities actually welcome them for the jobs and other financial benefits they bring.
If we take it as a given that some great strides have been made with recycled plastics and with glass bottles and aluminum cans, do the benefits of recycling outweigh the negatives? Are we doing it right?
Those co-mingled cans may make it easier for the average homeowner, but what happens to all that stuff? How does paper get to where paper goes, and how does your milk jug get to where plastic goes? People sort it, that’s how. The National Recycling Coalition’s report on recycling’s economic benefits shows that 1.1 million Americans work in the recycling industry, with an annual payroll of $37 billion.
One of the world’s most expensive labor forces not only picks up your recycled trash curbside but later works at conveyor belts sorting it out, and deciding what can be recycled and what ends up with all the rest of the stuff at the landfill. That broken bottle? Trash. Those plastic grocery bags? Trash. That cheese-covered pizza box? Trash.
Your recycled stuff has become a big business, and it is a commodity-based one that fluctuates with supply and demand just like any business. Your municipal government can recover some of the cost of recycling programs by selling off recyclable materials for reuse. Today, the mix of materials we put out on our curbs is worth about $125 per ton. So, if that amount outweighs the collecting, sorting and marketing costs, the recycling program can pay for itself.
Much of recyclables collected here in the United States are warehoused until there is a demand for it or shipped to wherever demand is highest. Until recently, much of it was going to China. In 2011, for instance, the United States sent about 15.8 million tons of paper and cardboard to China. The same year, we sold China $10.8 billion worth of metal and paper scrap and about $500 million worth – or nearly half — of our recycled plastics.
Earlier this year, however, the Chinese government announced more thorough inspections of our trash as part of its “Operation Green Fence” initiative, and American recyclers are understandably worried. If this profit center ends, companies may have to cut back on what they collect, and more of our trash will end in the regular trash as a result.
It is difficult to get a handle on the cost-effectiveness of recycling in certain states. California, New York, Oregon and eight other states add surcharges to the price of beverages to encourage consumers to recycle their containers. It is ironic that those add-on charges are instituted in states in which people are most likely to recycle their bottled and cans anyway.
These mandated incentives blur the picture. In a free market system, a business can be trusted to look at its bottom line to determine if the cost of collecting and remanufacturing aluminum cans, for example, is less than the cost of manufacturing new cans. If it is a winner to recycle, you can rest assured that it will do so. The glass industry for example, boasts that recycled glass is substituted for up to 70% of raw materials.
Recycling is an ongoing experiment for the United States. It is one that has worked on some levels. For the most part, 21st century Americans are much more aware of their waste than ever before. In addition, many American companies are actively involved in recycling efforts both for their employees’ usage and for the use of their own products.
We have gotten much better at recycling some of the big stuff. According to 2010 EPA data, auto batteries are most likely to actually get recycled. Of all the auto batteries thrown out in 2010, 96 percent were recycled. We also are making gains with paper, with a paper recovery rate of about 72 percent. The materials least likely to be reused are bottles and jars made of PET (Polyethylene terephthalate), which, according to EPA figures, have a recycling rate of only 29 percent.
While this national experiment continues to work itself out, what remains clear is that less consumption wins over recycling every time. If you are looking for a real sustainable low-cost way to help our environment, it is by re-purposing items, re-using bags and boxes, and using re-usable cups and bottles whenever possible.