Is Recycling A Waste Of Time?

Recycling is touted as the best way households have to reduce pollution, fight climate change, and keep our cities clean. We believe that we’re doing the right thing for our planet by throwing stuff in the right bin.

Then, why is it that every time I finish a peanut butter jar, my wife and I argue over where I should toss it?

Supposedly if the jar has remnants in it, it won’t get recycled. But, don’t they clean all recyclables at a giant warehouse anyway? If they don’t, then what can be recycled?

I read that in the US just about 32% of what we toss gets recycled and composted.

If all the burden of cleaning and separating the garbage falls on the households, how can we recycle anything?

I decided to research and end the kitchen debates once and for all.

I discovered that single-bin policies have added complexity and complicated recycling efforts.

I discovered that when China stopped importing waste in 2018 that, well, you’ll have to read it to believe it.

Finally, I used what I learned to devise a recycling strategy that guides my efforts and might help you too.

Let's jump in!

The Current State of recycling: Chaos

Recycling is a challenging science. In order for a product to be recycled it first needs to be broken down into its raw materials with minimal loss of quality so these materials can be then sold and reused in creating new products. Certain materials (The No Brainers) are easy to break down while others require a lot of energy. And others still are not good enough as the original, the material loses quality during the recycling process.

The No Brainers

There are items that you should always try to recycle, I call these the “no brainers” but they may not be what you expected.

Recycling makes sense insofar as we are actually saving something. And in the world of recycling this “something” usually comes down to energy savings.

For example, aluminum and steel require lots of energy to produce. Recycling them, though, uses very little energy so recycling them is a no-brainer.

Aluminum might well be called the king of recycling. According to Scientific American "making a can from recycled aluminum saves not only aluminum but 92 percent of the energy required to make a new can". Raw aluminum is extracted from bauxite ore and then needs to be electrolyzed (an energy-intensive process) before we can turn it into cans and other products. Because of this energy-intensive process, "one ton of recycled aluminum saves 14,000 kilowatt-hours (Kwh) of energy, 40 barrels of oil, and 10 cubic yards of landfill space", enough to drive 10,000 miles in an average car!

Steel is another easy material to recycle. The energy savings is less than aluminum, but the process is so simple (just melt the old steel and make new products) and ubiquitous that up to 88% of the steel used in the USA gets recycled.

More difficult than I’d imagined

Most materials are harder to recycle.

I’ve known this to be true for certain plastics and things filled with chemicals like batteries. But I was surprised to find out there are some common materials like paper, plastic, and glass for which recycling is not always the best option.

Why is paper difficult to recycle? It's all about its fibers: paper is composed of many tiny fibers strung together and each time paper is recycled these fibers break down a little more. So as the quality of the paper goes down, demand for it goes down, and without demand, recycling doesn't make much sense. There's hope, however: technological improvements mean that "the average piece of virgin printer paper can now be recycled five to seven times before the fibers get too degraded to be useful as new paper."

Then there are paper shopping bags. Did you know that they require more energy than plastic bags to be produced? Neither did I. But at least paper bags don’t end up polluting the oceans because they’re easy to recycle or compost.

As we'll see over and over, tradeoffs abound in the recycling world.

The most surprising item on this list for me is glass. We know glass is super recyclable. It's just sand mixed together that's heated a lot and then cooled. But unless you're returning used bottles for reuse, glass needs to be collected and melted down before it can be turned into new bottles. The result? Lots of heat again plus all the energy spent to collect it from our homes and route it to the glass manufacturer!

Avoid At All Costs

Oh, and don’t get me started on single-use cups! These are some of the worst offenders. Since they're made of cardboard we think they ought to be recyclable but they're not.

As explained in the New York Times, "they are lined with a fine film of polyethylene, which makes the cups liquid-proof but also difficult and expensive to reprocess (because the materials have to be separated). Most waste management facilities will treat the cups as trash."

Complicated

Plastics are complicated.

We use them for everything. From medical equipment to airplanes and car parts, they provide us many benefits and energy savings too. For example, when certain parts of cars and airplanes started to be made of composite materials we started saving more energy: to manufacture plastic materials we use less energy, comparatively, than we spend to make things out of glass or metal; and, since plastic is much lighter than these metals, the cars are airplanes that use plastics are more fuel-efficient as well.

But with all their convenience, consumer plastic poses a big problem for the environment. Plastics are polymers that are hard to separate into their constituent materials, so recycling them is difficult. So much so that according to Science Magazine only 10% of plastic is recycled in the USA. And, because of these difficulties most recycled plastic is only good for a second life as handbags, chairs, sweaters. Rather than recycled they are really downcycled.

Single-bin vs multi-bin policies

To complicate matters further, recycling policies are different depending on where you live. When I lived in Europe, I remember having no less than 5 different bins in my kitchen: cardboard, compost, plastics, cans and bottles, and garbage. When living in a big house this might not be a problem but I lived in a small apartment with other students.

It soon became a mess. Most things ended up in the garbage bin. Nobody bothered to select the appropriate bin.

Now that I live in San Francisco we are only required to have three bins: recyclables, compost, and garbage. All recyclables go in the same bin, a process usually called single-bin recycling.

On the surface, single-bin recycling seems a much better policy. My wife and I only need to argue over the recyclability of a bottle or box but don't need to argue over bins: it either goes into the blue one (recyclables) or the black one (garbage) and all food waste goes straight into the green compost box. Studies in the USA show that when a county switches to a single-bin policy people start recycling more. This makes sense, there's less friction and less for us to do.

But there are unintended consequences. Since we dump lots of different stuff into the same bin there is a risk of cross-contamination. Think of soap or grease getting into paper or cardboard. Contamination reduces the quality of the material making it harder to recycle. So, once these items hit the recycling facility these pieces of paper and cardboard will be discarded and sent to a landfill.

Then there is the issue of "wish-cycling": when in doubt we throw everything in the recycling bin hoping that it will get recycled. I always thought this was harmless, the worst that could happen was that things would get sorted out and sent to a landfill. But it adds to the cross-contamination problem especially if you throw things like used diapers which are a common item in these bins according to the National Waste and Recycling Association.

To make matters worse, most glass that is thrown into the blue bin never gets recycled! The problem here is that most jars and bottles break during transport so they get contaminated quite easily and the remaining shards are difficult to separate and worthless to glass manufacturers.

All these issues result in higher processing costs all over the supply chain, to the point that some counties in the USA are considering reverting the policy because the increased participation rates are offset by the increased costs and lower quality materials collected.

While I hope the single-bin policy doesn't go away (it is very convenient, let's be clear) my strategy is to throw everything in the garbage bin by default and only put in the blue bin cans and most plastics.

If all the complexity of recycling stopped here we would already have a lot to chew on. But it doesn’t stop here.

The problem of China

From legitimate waste management companies to mafia-controlled landfills, garbage has a huge global market. It is so profitable that as far back as 1992 an Italian Mafia boss said that "garbage is gold".

Leaving Mafia stories aside, until 2018 the largest legitimate buyer of trash was China. The country made a lot of money on garbage because with cheap labor and cheap electricity they could turn trash into new material at a considerable profit.

But as we just saw, with the advent of single-bin policies lots of materials became too contaminated to be profitable. Lower profitability pushed China to reduce garbage imports in 2018.

China set a maximum contamination level of 0.5% on imported plastics and papers. And since most collected recyclables in the USA exceeded this limit by a factor of 10 or more, it came as a de facto ban on garbage imports.

This policy turned the garbage world upside down.

The USA and Europe suddenly found themselves with more garbage than they could cope with. Its price rock-bottomed making it easier and cheaper to send more stuff to landfills than to recycling facilities.

This seems more an issue of our over-globalized world than anything else. Europe and the USA depended too much on China to manage their waste and now we're drowning in it: about half the trash that China used to buy has no buyer today so it will probably end up in a landfill.

Landfills

So, does recycling make sense?

From what we've seen, despite being ubiquitous and touted as the best option we have to manage our waste, there are many logistic obstacles.

What would happen if we stopped recycling altogether?

Some suggest that, at least in the USA, all the garbage produced for the next 1000 years could fit into a landfill 100 yards deep and 35 miles across on each side.

A 35x35 miles landfill is still huge, but we're talking about something manageable and we wouldn't need to stop recycling completely, because as we've seen it makes a lot of sense for certain materials.

The future of recycling

There are some projects that paint a cleaner future for waste and recycling.

We're engineering new compostable materials. There exist new types of plastic made from organic compounds like resin. While similar to paper in most cases, in that they require more energy than oil-based plastics to be produced, they degrade easily and don't pollute the environment.

We’re also enhancing our sorting machines with new software. Improvements in optical sensors and computer vision mean that new sorting machines are becoming better and better in sorting and separating materials to recycle. These advances are very encouraging. I wouldn't want to add more bins to my kitchen. For all its flaws, single-bin recycling is convenient.

The Ocean Cleanup project. This is one of those endeavors that lets me be hopeful about our future. The project is a non-profit founded in 2013 by then-teenager inventor Bojan Slat with the purpose of building machines to remove 90% of the oceans' plastic waste. The project is still in its infancy but they're making incredible progress. And you can even buy sunglasses made from recovered plastic to help them out. How cool is that?!

A recycling strategy that you can use

Given all of what we just saw, you might be tempted to just throw everything in the garbage bin. I won't blame you, The garbage world is complex. Given the current state of affairs, perhaps tossing everything makes sense.

But recycling is still a net good for the world, especially if we focus on the high leverage items (materials that we know are easy to recycle). So here are the guidelines my wife and I have come up with after much reading and endless Kitchen discussions:

  • Cardboard. We recycle all the cardboard that we can. But we don't throw it directly in the blue bin as it risks being contaminated. And when it comes to pizza boxes we almost always throw them in the garbage bin. Sure, we could separate the clean parts, recycle those and cut the dirty parts and throw them in the compost bin, but it's not worth the effort. The boxes will still degrade easily in a landfill.
  • Plastics. Hard plastics that can be washed easily (no more than 20 seconds) get washed, dried in the rack and then thrown in the blue bin. All other plastics go straight into the garbage.
  • Batteries. Shouldn't need an explanation. Batteries contain toxic chemicals. We always put them in the right bin.
  • Aluminum and other metals. Most of these are highly recyclable and easy to sort from other materials so we recycle them as much as we can. We wash most cans and then they go in the blue bin.

To end, remember the three Rs of recycling: reduce, reuse, recycle. Just don't lose sleep over recycling everything that you consume because, as we've seen, it's not always the best option.

Thanks to John Lanza, Bardia Shahali, and Sarah Ramsey for reading and editing drafts of this post.

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