Recycling Is Broken, and Now It's Costing Us All Serious Coin

Cities are losing money on every recycling bin they pick up.

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Years ago I got into a whole lot of trouble with readers for writing that Recycling is Bulls**t: “Let's call recycling what it is – a fraud, a sham, a scam perpetrated by big business on the citizens and municipalities of America.” Or, "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 so somebody can melt it and downcycle it into a bench if you are lucky."

And it has never been more true than now. And indeed, if one needed any more proof, you can read about it in the Guardian, where Aaron Davis notes that almost every municipality in America is running in the red and using taxpayers’ money to dispose of recyclables.

In short, the business of recycling in the US has stalled. And industry leaders warn that the situation is worse than it appears. “If people feel that recycling is important – and I think they do, increasingly – then we are talking about a nationwide crisis,” said David Steiner, chief executive of Waste Management, America’s largest recycler

Recycling in Washington is now costing the city $63 per tonne – more than the cost of incinerating or even landfilling. The recyclers are getting far less than they used to; glass is almost worthless, paper a fraction of what it used to be. Only cardboard is holding up, because of the demand for boxes for all those Amazon purchases we are making.

Interestingly, the manufacturers are contributing to the problem by making packaging with less material; the bottled water people makers proudly talk about how they are using less plastic, but now the bottles are so light that they don’t get properly separated, and the recyclers are handling the same number of pieces and getting less material out of it.

Coffee cans disappeared in favour of vacuum-packed aluminium bags; some tuna cans went the same way. Tin cans and plastic water bottles became thinner, too: The amount of plastic that once came from 22 bottles now requires 36.

Even when it pays, recycling is a sham; for most non-metals, it’s all downcycling to a lower quality material in a lower quality product, bottles into lawn chairs and plastic lumber, glass into roadbeds.

So in the end, the consumer is subsidizing the manufacturers of pop and beer who won’t sell refillable containers, the bottled water makers who have convinced us to buy a product we don’t need, the takeout and packaged food containers that we purchase for convenience.

green bin contents
British Columbia green bin contents.  Public Domain

Then there are the green bins that many cities are using to keep organic waste out of the landfills, turning it into compost. In one Canadian city, the taxpayers are paying C$654 per tonne to get rid of it. “At this price, kitchen scraps become more valuable than rice ($563), wheat ($323) or corn ($306) according to commodity markets.” You know something is wrong with the system when food is cheaper than compost.

Of course there are solutions to the problem that consumers and governments could do.

  • Producer responsibility. Make the people who sell us stuff responsible from start to finish, whether by making their products reusable, having take-back programs like Dell and Apple do, or charge the producers for the cost of taking their stuff away instead of charging the consumer through taxes.
  • Deposits on everything. In countries with returnable beer bottles, everyone takes them back for the deposit. In Ontario where there are deposits on wine bottles, it is an industry for the homeless and the poor. If there was a deposit on every Starbucks and Tim Hortons paper cup, a lot more people would probably use refillable containers.
  • Consumer education. Really, how long have we been trying to get people to stop buying bottled water? We have to turn it into the new smoking. Make zero waste living the cool new thing.
  • Better food management. That’s what the green bins are full of- the stuff that rots in the fridge or the excess scraped off the plates. Perhaps some stems and cuttings and peels from people who do actually cook themselves, but that’s a small proportion of it.

The recycling system is designed to make us feel good about throwing stuff away. But it’s not virtuous and it doesn’t even work if you can’t sell the stuff that you are picking up. It’s time to end this charade and call it what it is.

And watch Margaret's video here: