Is the 'reign of recycling' really over?

Landfill with seagulls above
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John Tierney’s opinion piece in the New York Times’ October 4th Sunday Review, “The Reign of Recycling,” appeared to make a compelling case against the perceived benefits of recycling. Driven principally by arguments of economic efficiency, Tierney misses the larger point and planetary imperative of recycling. To avoid, and ideally reverse, the escalating damage we have done to our planet, our society needs a system in which production and consumption are in balance with long-term ecological well-being.

The economics of today’s recycling infrastructure are simple: if the cost of collecting and processing something is cheaper than the resulting end-product, then it’s generally recycled (as people can make money from doing so). This holds true for commodities such as paper, aluminum and certain types of rigid plastics (like a soda bottle or detergent container). For everything else, which represents the vast majority of packaging types (from a blister pack to a flexible food package) and almost all objects (a pen, a toothbrush, etc.), it costs more to collect and process than it’s worth. This renders these materials waste, which means they will either be landfilled or incinerated.

Tierney seems to agree with this statement. Although he disparages recycling generally, he reasons that recycling makes sense when it’s profitable, and landfill or incineration make sense when they are more profitable than recycling. However, this is looking at recycling only through an economic lens, making it synonymous to classic raw material extraction, like mining. Mr. Tierney misses the point that, like education, national security and most environmental policies that protect or advance the common good, the rationale for recycling isn’t only about cost efficiency.

Tierney relies on selective data to postulate that recycling items that aren’t deemed profitable isn’t environmentally beneficial. The benefits vary, but after having reviewed dozens of independent life cycle analyses (including independent LCAs for TerraCycle products made from packaging waste), I have consistently found – as have various other institutions around the world – that there are meaningful environmental benefits to recycling most materials (it is irrelevant on this point whether or not these items are economically profitable to physically process) when measuring against the environmental impacts of producing new products from virgin materials.

For example, Tierney does not comment on the staggering amount of plastics in our oceans – 5 trillion pieces of plastic in fact, or about 250,000 tons. According to a variety of studies published by The Royal Society in their theme issue, "Plastics, the environment and human health: current consensus and future trends" – ocean plastics are breaking down at an alarming rate and leaching toxic chemicals, such a bisphenol A, into our seas. Fish and birds consume or absorb these chemicals, and eventually, by moving through the food chain, those toxins can be consumed by humans. The rising level of these toxins in humans is linked to long-term health effects such as cancer, birth defects and endocrine disruption. As a society, we must consider the downstream economic costs of the health impacts associated with our linear consumption patterns. Doing so might expose the hidden dangers behind our disposable society, which has subsequently helped generate historic corporate profits for most companies in the supply chain.

This is just one of the environmental arguments that are not considered in Tierney’s analysis. What of the environmental impact (which has yet to be fully assessed) of the fly-ash and airborne particulates from the aging and less-than-efficient trash incineration systems of Europe, not to mention the leachate risks associated with disposing of incinerator ash in landfills? And if we’re still talking economics, waste incinerators have among the highest capital and operational costs compared to other energy-generating systems – a lot of money to linearly dispose of potentially valuable material. None of these economic considerations (and there are many others) find their way into Tierney’s convenient calculations.

There are an incredible number of parallels to this overall discussion; it is expensive to put catalytic converters on cars, but the difference in air quality in countries that don’t have them (such as in developing nations with limited emissions regulations and high volumes of older-model vehicles) is obvious. For much of the 20th century, there were battles over attempts to reduce dumping in our rivers and oceans. Today, it’s difficult to argue with the wisdom of those “costly” decisions.

I agree with Tierney that it’s important to rethink how we produce and dispose of waste, and that the ecological benefits must be subject to cost-benefit analyses. That said, any realistic equation must include the true costs and full impacts of Tierney’s preferred alternatives to recycling.

Despite Tierney’s convenient calculations and omissions of data key to making a positive case for recycling, and his clear one-sidedness in trying to make a case against it, Tierney still shows recycling has at least a modest environmental benefit. One thing that we know for sure isn’t benefiting long-term sustainable development is the linear system we have now (extract, produce, consume, dispose). I’ll take a modest positive for the environment over a devastating, clearly destructive negative any day.

As I read “The Reign of Recycling” I couldn’t help but think of a saying by Derek Bok: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

(For more, see: Idiocracy in the New York Times: John Tierney on recycling)

Is the 'reign of recycling' really over?
A recent opinion piece in The New York Times appeared to make a compelling case against the perceived benefits of recycling. Driven principally by arguments of economic efficiency, it misses the larger point and planetary imperative of recycling.