Does recycling work?
I used to hear that recycling was bunk; that it was at best in an initial or transitional phase, but currently an inefficient use of energy and resources, and even potentially polluting. Critics called it a massive, coordinated publicity stunt devised to placate the public and convince us that we’re doing something good when we’re really all just having a picnic on the beach, blissfully unaware of the toxic tidal wave of trash that will eventually kill us all. That was the cynical view, anyway. The optimists had a different perspective: as technology advanced, large scale recycling would become more viable, efficient and innovative and ultimately save us all. Everything would be recycled just like the Earth does with all its air and water (never mind the greenhouse effect or acid rain). Recycling was stressed over reuse, conservation and cutting back, all of which contribute less to commerce.
So what about now? I want to know the current state of recycling and the shape of things to come. So, naturally, I googled it. The amount of articles, blogs, tweets and twaddle with the title ‘The Truth About Recycling’ is enough to make me want to recycle the entire Internet into something that makes sense. Yes, I too am guilty of wanting a clear, simple answer in a world where there never is one.
One of the pieces I was keen to examine is a much discussed article in the Economist from June 7th, 2007 – which I can’t link directly because it has since become ‘premium content’. If you click on the link you can easily sign up for a free trial (like I did) or choose to pay for access to premium content if you should so desire. Alternately, Biophile Magazine has the first few paragraphs online, which offer a nice summary of the Economist article and this blog quotes several passages with a bit of added commentary. OK, maybe the Internet isn’t so bad after all. Oh, who am I kidding? I love the Internet!
The Economist’s findings are overwhelmingly positive vis-à-vis recycling. The mid 2000s saw a great increase in efficient recycling in the U.S. and Europe, with Austria and the Netherlands reaching recycling levels of 60% of their municipal waste. A rigorous scientific study in Denmark also found that 83% of recycling is beneficial for the environment.
But at the same time that recycling has grown, so has waste production in Western countries, so in a way it’s acted like a Band-Aid; if we didn’t make so much packaging and plastic bags, we wouldn’t need to recycle as much. And plastics – cheap, useful, seductive, petroleum-based, evil plastics – are the most difficult to recycle and are therefore the least recycled material, yet they are being used more and more. Blurg!
Another ‘The Truth About Recycling’ article comes from the December 2008 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine, which I always thought was about cars, but apparently it’s a science and technology journal that has been published for over 100 years. Don’t I feel dumb. The PM feature is low on text and high on informative charts and statistics, which show the economic, environmental, and energy benefits – as well as feasibilities – of different kinds of recycling. Aluminum gets very high marks, while glass is low (re-use is suggested). Newsprint is also worth recycling, as are PET plastics, but polystyrene recycling, though valuable and efficient when executed, just isn’t done very much due to difficulties in sorting.
The final ‘The truth about recycling’ article I will mention is from the February 26th edition of the U.K.’s Guardian and examines current developments in recycling in Great Britain, including a recent public backlash against the practice. This backlash, or crisis in confidence, is thought to be partly the result of the bad – and often rightly so – publicity concerning the export of trash to developing nations and the processing of e-waste in China and Africa. This skepticism towards recycling coincides with a growth from only 10% of waste being recycled in England in the year 2000 to 40% in 2008. Recent suggestions that burning waste to generate electricity rather than recycling it have only added fuel to the fire.
One recent scheme gaining traction is the practice of commingling – an end to the sorting of waste at home. Residents simply put their recyclables out in one large container and the sorting gets done manually or by machine at the recycling plant. Commingling is believed to be easier and more efficient, resulting in a higher rate of recycling – about 20% more. As far as the business side of things, the industry has suffered with the global economic downturn, but according to its spokespeople, it is recovering, is still a moneymaker and is in quite good shape. Add to that the fact that recycling is still part of a transitional phase from traditional waste disposal and a relatively new practice, which is streamlining, developing and expanding all the time. Waste incineration has also made great strides in cleanliness and in the generation of electricity.
Recycling is big business and not always good for the environment – check out our article on China’s e-waste – but making money drives development much more than simple state funded or charitable environmental clean up. The question is often ‘is recycling economically viable?’ and the answer seems to be ‘yes’ in the vast majority of cases. Some people are making a lot of money out of it and those materials that still make environmental sense to recycle should of course be recycled anyway, as part of waste management. After all, old-fashioned waste disposal isn’t a moneymaker; it’s a public service. So in a sense, while it may be great that recycling can generate money, that’s not the only reason to do it and not the only thing that makes it viable. But the painful truth of the matter is that we create far too much waste and needlessly so. For the Band-Aid to really work we need to stop cutting ourselves and reign in the trash, disposables, excess packaging and stop throwing away perfectly good things just to keep up with the Joneses.
By Graham Land