Can Recycling Be Bad for the Environment?
At a certain point, though, recycling developed something of a dark side from an environmental perspective. On the surface, it’s still a good idea both to recycle waste and to design products and packaging with the idea of recycling them in a closed loop. Unfortunately, in its modern-day incarnation, recycling has also given the manufacturers of disposable items a way to essentially market overconsumption as environmentalism. Every year, reports come out touting rising recycling rates and neglecting to mention the soaring consumption that goes along with them. American consumers assuage any guilt they might feel about consuming mass quantities of unnecessary, disposable goods by dutifully tossing those items into their recycling bins and hauling them out to the curb each week.
Trade groups representing various packaging interests–plastic, paper, glass–have become the largest proponents and financial sponsors of recycling. If you go to the Environmental Protection Agency’s website looking for statistics on packaging recycling, the stats on plastics recycling come from the American Plastics Council and the Society of the Plastics Industries, Inc. (SPI), both trade associations representing the plastics industry.
The plastics industry’s interest in recycling is two-fold of course–on the one hand, by supporting recycling and helping to establish infrastructure for plastic recycling, the industry ensures a steady supply of new materials. On the other, it helps consumer to justify the consumption of more disposable plastic goods and packaged items if they can comfort themselves with the idea that whatever they toss in the bin will be recycled.
The thing is, recycling isn’t the small operation it once was, it’s a commodity business that fluctuates with supply and demand. It’s also a global market, with recyclables collected in the United States being shipped to wherever demand is highest (often China). A few years ago, when demand for recycled paper products dropped, recyclers all over the country where warehousing stacks of cardboard, waiting for the prices to turn around. “The hope is that eventually the markets turn around and that the material is sold, but I have heard of instances where it gets landfilled, because a community doesn’t have the demand or the space or the company to deal with it,” says Gene Jones, executive director of Southern Waste Information Exchange—a nonprofit center for information about recycling waste.
Moreover, not everything that’s “recyclable” actually gets recycled. Even when you’re dealing with easily recycled items like PET or HDPE plastic (the plastics commonly used for bottles), or glass or cardboard, first you’ve got to get consumers to dispose of the items properly, then you’ve got to have a collection system in place (just over half of U.S. cities have curbside recycling, keep in mind), and then recyclers typically need to have a buyer lined up to justify recycling anything.
There’s a difference between things being recyclable and actually being recycled,” says Gerry Fishbeck, vice president of UNited Resource Recovery Corporation (URRC), one of the largest recyclers in the country. ”It’s centered around critical mass – is there enough of the material out there? And even if there is, is it worth it for recyclers to create a whole separate stream?”
Fishbeck cites PVC as a perfect example: Technically it’s recyclable, but most recyclers don’t handle the stuff. It can mimic PET and thus easily get into a PET recycling stream, but when it’s melted down it will create brown particles in the resin, creating color problems with the resulting material. “So even though it’s recyclable, that material will get separated out and disposed of as waste at the recycling facility,” Fishbeck explains.
Bioplastics are another example. With the exception of bio-based PET and HDPE, bioplastics fall into the recyclable but not recycled category. They are treated as contaminants of the recycling stream by most recyclers and separated out as waste. “If PLA (polylactic acid, the most common bioplastic today) gets into the recycling stream, it will cause contamination, it will be a defect, and that means we’ll do everything we can to keep it out of the stream and it will become waste,” Fishbeck says. “There’s just not enough of it around to have the critical mass to justify getting it separated and recycled. It can be done, but it isn’t.”
Emissions are another sticky subject for recycling. In the case of some materials–aluminum corrugated cardboard, newspaper, dimensional lumber, and medium-density fiberboard–the net greenhouse gas emissions reductions enabled by recycling are actually greater than they would be if the waste source was simply reduced, according to the EPA. For others–glass, plastic–while in some cases the energy required to recycle versus making virgin material is lower, there are concerns about the particulates emitted by recycling factories. In recent studies of air quality in Oakland, recycling centers were, perhaps surprisingly, included amongst the city’s polluters.
One metal recycling plant in West Oakland has been protested so much by local residents that it was set to close its doors and move out of the city until a local group came up with the idea of helping the plant move to a more industrial part of town. The city wanted to keep the plant within its limits not just to maintain its tax base and keep jobs, but to support the so-called hidden economy, wherein some local residents make a living collecting and redeeming recyclable materials.
It’s a perfect illustration of the state of recycling today: Like any other business, it’s neither altruistic nor completely self-serving; it comes with clear societal and environmental benefits–perhaps more so than many other businesses–but it also comes with some costs and cannot be considered a perfect solution to the United States’ large and ever-growing consumption and waste problems.