From the kitchen table to the editorial pages, people have been debating the merits of recycling for decades. Does it really save energy and money? Can I recycle that yogurt cup or juice box? At the same time, recycling technology and global markets have evolved quickly, leaving some consumers confused or stuck in old, outdated ways. A lot of myths persist about those blue bins. Here are some of the most common.
Myth No. 1: Recycling uses more energy than making something new.
This myth has been kicking around for decades. Daniel K. Benjamin, a senior fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center, recently told Big Think, “In most cities across the nation, recycling of household trash is, in fact, wasteful, even when we take into account the meager environmental benefits of such recycling.” And as Leland Teschler of Machine Design put it, “Save energy: Don’t recycle.”
But according to the Environmental Protection Agency, recycling aluminum cans saves 95 percent of the energy needed to make new ones from raw materials. Recycling steel and tin cans saves 60 to 74 percent, recycling paper saves about 60 percent, and recycling plastic and glass saves about one-third of the energy compared with making those products from virgin materials. In places where glass gets recycled, the energy saved from one bottle will operate a 100-watt light bulb for four hours.
During the historic California drought a few years ago, some people asked if they should stop recycling in order to save water. An analysis by the website Treehugger confirmed that more water is saved by processing recycled materials than by making new stuff.
Myth No. 2: Items must be meticulously sorted for recycling.
When recycling was a relatively novel concept, many waste haulers insisted on strict sorting rules. As collection and recycling machinery evolved, many of those rules changed. Confusion abounds: Can I recycle an envelope with a plastic window? Do I have to remove staples from paper? In my Washington apartment building, neighbors have posted conflicting signs about whether glass must be sorted by color or if plastic bags are accepted.
In general, people don’t need to sort their recyclables to anywhere near the degree they used to. More communities are now using “single stream” systems, in which people are encouraged to place all their recyclables into one container. Cleaner materials reduce odors and speed the process, but the recycling steps involve washing, shredding and crushing the material, and then often melting it. Food residue and impurities like paper clips are burned off or collected through magnets and other means. Items made from multiple types of materials, like juice cartons, can be more difficult to recycle, but each facility handles such materials based on its own equipment and needs. Right now, more than 60 percent of U.S. households have access to carton recycling, and product manufacturers have been working on making packaging that is easier to recycle.
Myth No. 3: Products made from recycled content are lower quality.
A few decades ago, products made from recycled materials were often derided as subpar. Recycled paper was gray and rough. Recycled plastic had a reputation as weak. Some people still associate recycled content with lower performance. “Recycled materials are often of lower quality than the materials from which they were derived,” Alexander Hellemans wrote for youris.com. And in one survey, consumers said they were less likely to buy environmentally green products because they assumed them to be inferior.
But manufacturers have learned a great deal since the early days, and consumer and corporate demand for recycled products has risen so steadily that producers have made considerable strides in quality. “As more and more companies publish their sustainability goals, the use of recycled resins is transitioning from just a low-cost alternative to a specified part of many new products,” Ron Whaley, CEO of Geo-Tech Polymers, an Ohio recycler, told Plastics Technology. “… Products must now meet the same high quality and performance characteristics as virgin resin.”
Numerous studies have shown that paper with recycled content now meets high performance standards. Glass, plastic and metal containers with recycled content have been approved for use with food products by the Food and Drug Administration.
Myth No. 4: Recyclables just end up in the trash.
It’s become something of an urban legend: the garbage man who dumps all the carefully separated recyclables in with the trash. Sightings of this rogue figure abound online. “Today I just watched my trash/recycling company dump my three weeks’ worth of recycling into the same truck as my trash. Just like that,” wrote one self-described “indignant” recycler. At least one local news station has gotten in on the act: “Recycling getting dumped in the trash?” asked Palm Springs, California, CBS affiliate KESQ. “See what one Palm Desert resident caught on camera.” And on a scale far beyond the local garbage truck, some material marked for recycling has landed in the trash: In 2013, China’s crackdown on imports of “low-quality” scrap materials caused some U.S. recyclers to divert some of their collected plastics to landfills.
Since then, though, the domestic recycling industry has shown signs of maturing. Nina Belluci Butler, CEO of research and consulting firm More Recycling, says markets have been relatively stable for plastic bottles, which means fewer recyclables headed for the landfill.
The fear that everything we painstakingly sort will just end up in the same place as the rest of our garbage is overblown, experts caution. Patty Moore, who co-founded More Recycling, told Business Insider that “there are buyers for [recyclables] all day long. The amount that’s going to the landfill is insignificant.” Contamination of collected recyclables can decrease their value and increase the amount that must be discarded — across the U.S., about 25 percent of items placed in blue bins can’t be recycled at their end point — but the solution is better consumer awareness, not abandonment of programs. As Patrick Carter, executive director of the Sonoma County, California, Waste Management Agency, told the North Bay Business Journal, “Garbage companies find markets,” despite fluctuating prices and bumps in the road. As for the worry that rogue garbage collectors are simply tossing our carefully sorted materials into the dust heap, there’s just not much evidence of it happening on a large scale.
Myth No. 5: Recycling should pay for itself.
The idea that municipalities should make money, or at least break even, on recycling programs is a popular talking point. As one Washington Post editorial put it: “Recycling pays for itself. Indeed, we can’t afford not to recycle.” Bucknell University economist Thomas Kinnaman took a close look at recycling in Japan and concluded that an “optimal” recycling rate, which would derive what he defined as the most benefit from the lowest cost, would be about 10 percent of all materials. Recycling plastic and glass didn’t make the cut in his analysis, because of the relatively low costs for the virgin materials and sorting and shipping challenges.
But cities can’t control world markets. Recycled materials are economic commodities, just like pork bellies and microchips, and their value rises and falls. When oil prices are low, it’s cheaper to make plastics from virgin materials (i.e., petroleum products). Buyers for recycled materials aren’t evenly distributed across the country, and their demand changes with other market forces. In part because of these pressures, Waste Management — the country’s largest waste hauler — shuttered 20 recycling facilities in 2014 and 2015.
While many jurisdictions find that they can make money off a recycling program, some places struggle. A state-of-the-art recycling facility in Alabama was forced to shutter less than two years after its grand launch after global commodity prices tanked.
A number of entrepreneurs are working on new business models to increase participation in recycling and make it more profitable for cities. Recyclebank rewards consumers who recycle with various incentives. Vending machines in Australia offer people a small prize, like a food truck coupon, for depositing recyclables.
Recycling can be a messy business, and sometimes it’s a net loss for a jurisdiction. But the long-term economics remain relatively sound, especially since prices for oil and other raw materials are expected to climb. And recycling creates jobs — some 1.25 million in the United States.
Beyond short-term dollars and cents, it’s clear that recycling provides numerous benefits to the environment and society. There’s much to be gained by asking people to be more conscientious about their waste.
Howard is a senior writer and editor covering the environment at National Geographic.