New Report Confirms: Recycling Is BS

NPR investigation blames Big Oil for misleading the public.

Incinerator in Copenhagen
In Copenhagen it's called "waste to energy.".

Lloyd Alter

We have a tradition on Treehugger: On every November 15th since 2008, on America Recycles Day, we do a post calling recycling what it is: "a fraud, a sham, a scam perpetrated by big business on the citizens and municipalities of America." 

Recycling makes you feel good about buying disposable packaging and sorting it into neat little piles so that you can then pay your city or town to take away and ship across the country or farther so that somebody can melt it and downcycle it into a bench if you are lucky.

Treehugger's Margaret Badore even made a movie about it:

Now, an exposé on NPR written by Laura Sullivan – "How Big Oil Misled The Public Into Believing Plastic Would Be Recycled" – goes even further, showing how it doesn't even get into benches. We have explained how recycling was invented by the bottling and packaging companies to deal with a landfill crisis, quoting Heather Rogers:

With landfill space shrinking, new incinerators ruled out, water dumping long ago outlawed and the public becoming more environmentally aware by the hour, the solutions to the garbage disposal problem were narrowing. Looking forward, manufacturers must have perceived their range of options as truly horrifying: bans on certain materials and industrial processes; production controls; minimum standards for product durability.

Not to mention deposits and returnable bottle systems that would completely mess up the linear process that was so profitable. Where Sullivan and NPR add to the story is the explanation of how the plastics industry muddled the picture even more.

ad for recycling
I want to be a bench because I can't be a bottle. Keep America Beautiful

It's clear throughout the article that plastic recycling never made much economic sense, because the plastics deteriorate with each cycle. That's why the industry talked about how the bottle wants to be a bench. It's also expensive to pick all this stuff up and to separate it. Plastics cannot all just be melted down together; they have different chemistries and uses. Only a few actually had value when recycled – the PET that is in the clear soda and water bottles, and the polyethylene in heavy milk jugs. But the plastics industry started putting those recycling symbols on everything, and this created a serious problem for a recycler that Sullivan interviews.

[Coy] Smith went out to the piles of plastic and started flipping over the containers. All of them were now stamped with the triangle of arrows — known as the international recycling symbol — with a number in the middle. He knew right away what was happening. "All of a sudden, the consumer is looking at what's on their soda bottle and they're looking at what's on their yogurt tub, and they say, 'Oh well, they both have a symbol. Oh well, I guess they both go in,' " he says.

It turns out that the industry had lobbied states to mandate that the symbol go on every plastic, even if it was not viable to recycle, and evidently even environmentalists approved. The symbol became a green marketing tool, helping convince the public that it was just fine to use all this plastic because it was getting recycled. Meanwhile, it made the stream of plastic even more expensive to separate and process. No wonder it so much of it was shipped to China, where the labor was cheap enough to have people go through it and pick out the valuable stuff, and the environmental standards were poor enough that everything else could be dumped or burned. When China closed its doors, the whole façade fell apart.

actions that people take
What is the greenest thing you can do?. The Standard Issue/ USGBC 

The industry has done such a good job at this that in survey after survey, people proudly describe recycling as the most virtuous environmental thing that they do in their lives, even though all we are doing is making old plastic disappear from sight so that the industry can sell us new stuff. Fundamentally, the plastics industry has zero interest in using old plastic when they can get higher quality virgin plastic at lower cost.

"This Time It Will Be Different."

The industry is promising change, with industry spokesman Steve Russell telling NPR's Sullivan that he's on the case:

"'It didn't get recycled because the system wasn't up to par,' he says. 'We hadn't invested in the ability to sort it and there hadn't been market signals that companies were willing to buy it, and both of those things exist today.'"

Actually, there are no market signals at all, other than the same old concern that the industry better do something to make it look good.

"'..our members have invested in developing the technologies that have brought us where we are today,' he says. 'We are going to be able to make all of our new plastic out of existing municipal solid waste in plastic.'"
Chemical recycling is just making fuel
Chemical recycling is just making fuel. GAIA 

That new technology would be what they are calling chemical recycling, where plastics are cooked and processed to turn them back into feedstocks, essentially turning them back into fossil fuels and petrochemicals. And as I noted previously:

"Chemical recycling, at least as is happening now, is just an elaborate and expensive version of waste-to-energy. There is no point, other than it makes waste disappear. Given the amount of CO2 it generates, from a climate point of view, we would be better off just burying it, and we are not going back there. The only real way to deal with this is to stop making so much of the stuff in the first place, to reuse and to refill, and to go truly circular."

We will have more coverage of chemical recycling shortly.

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Promo image Let's start indoctrinating them when they are young. Let's start indoctrinating them when they are young.

Matt Wilkins made a similar case in Scientific American a few years ago; Katherine Martinko wrote about it in "Why Recycling Won't Save the Planet."

And here is more background from Treehugger:

Recycling Is Suffering From System Failure; It's Time for a System Redesign: "We are sacrificing our oceans and filling our landfills in the name of convenience. It's time to pay the bill."

Recycling Is Broken, So We Have to Fix Our Disposable Culture: "Leyla Acaroglu calls recycling a 'placebo' and calls for a reusable revolution to get us out of this mess."

Recycling Is BS Update: Even Aluminum Recycling Is a Mess: "Our recycling system is broken, and we can't fix it without changing the way we live."

Recycling Is Broken, and Now It's Costing Us All Serious Coin: "Cities are losing money on every recycling bin they pick up."

Our Lives Have Been Co-Opted by the Convenience Industrial Complex: "Nobody ever lost money making things easier or more convenient, and our planet is paying the price."

Read the whole NPR article here.