The Echo Chamber: On recycling

The average American produces 4.3 pounds of waste per dayThirty-four percent of our total waste is recycled, up from 16 percent in 1990. Germans blow us out of the water, recycling or composting over 60 percent of their municipal waste, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. But still, in 2013, the U.S. saved 87.2 million tons of refuse from landfills due to recycling and composting — an annual 39 million cars worth of greenhouse gas emissions. These types of statistics make recycling seem like a moral imperative with only positive externalities — for most of us, more recycling is always better. But can you recycle too much? And can recycling actually hurt the environment? To find out, we need to take a step outside The Echo Chamber.

Four of the largest categories of recyclables are paper, organics, metal and plastics. Of these, recycling paper and metals leads to huge reductions in greenhouse gases — organics and plastics, not so much.

For every metric ton of paper and metal recycled, around three tons of carbon dioxide are offset. For plastic, the ratio is just 1:1, while glass rests at a dismal 3:1 and yard trimmings are even worse with a ratio of 20:1. All in all, plastics, glass and everything non-paper or metal comprise a mere two-tenths of a percent of the reduction in America’s carbon footprint due to recycling. Worse, many plastics are converted to plastic lumber and carpet fibers, which end up in landfills, while others are simply thrown away. 

It’s not just plastics that cause problems; as The Onion so aptly put it, “Recycling Eliminated More Than 50 Million Tons of Guilt in ’96.” The status of recycling as an unequivocal boon can lead people to forget about the most effective of the “three Rs” — reduce — and give people a blank moral check to consume and, consequentially, pollute. One bottle in a blue bin does little when you need to recycle 40,000 plastic bottles to offset the greenhouse impact of one roundtrip ticket from New York City to London.

Municipalities, however, continue to encourage more and more recycling; New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio envisions a waste-free NYC by 2030, with much of the former refuse being transferred to recycling plants. This would only exacerbate the problem of recycling plants’ financial instability: Increasing the supply of recyclables without increasing the demand for recycled goods will crash prices. Plastics already face a similar issue of stagnation because of their direct correlation to oil prices. But are landfills, the alternative to de Blasio’s zero-waste plan, really all that bad?

Landfills have come a long way from the festering holes they once were. Most are massive operations that recapture energy and filter out toxins that pool underneath, while some are even repurposed into parks. While less waste is always better, simply trading waste for recycling does not necessarily deserve the same status. A 2014 study from the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management found that the socially-optimal rate of recycling in Japan is around 10 percent — much lower than the actual rate of 20 percent.

Obviously, recycling has its benefits. But can we recycle too much? Is recycling seen as too perfect? And are the alternatives really all that bad? That’s for you to decide. For now, I just hope that you’ve enjoyed some time outside The Echo Chamber.

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