Celebrate the Facts!
Recycling is broken and the blue bin is not the answer. Current recycling realities drive recycling only by economically profitable recovery with the remainder landfilled – interred in huge cemeteries guaranteed to preserve the materials in an anoxic environment for millennia, leaking contamination into groundwater and emitting the most potent greenhouse gas, methane, into the air. Energy recovery through incineration, regarded as recycling by regulatory definition, contributes to global warming and releases contaminants into the air and is not a sustainable technology. Waste minimization is a critical part of solving the world’s climate change issue and the myths of the blue bin should go away.
The movement to urge Americans to recycle waste rather than simply dispose of it in the garbage was one of the most successful public relations campaigns ever launched, to good effect, as evidenced in the above figure.
The program has been successful and no thinking person would say otherwise. Regardless the rates of recycling have flattened over time and there are several areas that are noteworthy. Plastic recycling is only 9% due to most plastics simply not being recyclable and changes to both technology and consumer behavior would be necessary for change. Yard waste, eminently compostable, is being landfilled. Glass is largely not being recycled either and changes in packaging and consumer behavior will be required for change.
Total annual MSW generation in the U.S. has increased by 77% since 1980, to about 268 million tons per year. Per capita, MSW generation increased by 23% over the same period, from 3.7 pounds to 4.9 pounds per person each day, although per capita generation has decreased slightly since 1990.
In 2018 the United States generated 292 million tons or 4.9 pounds per person per day of municipal solid waste (MSW). About 69 million tons were recycled and 25 million tons were composted. About one-third of that ‘recycled’ waste was exported – part of the myth of the blue bin.
MSW materials that cannot be recycled:
Recyclables became a commodity good that could be sold. The Federal government adopted construction requirements in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) resulted in requirements for recycled content in construction projects. This helped the development of technologies to use these raw materials which meant the prices for these commodities theoretically increased, keeping recycling programs economically feasible. Many states and municipalities adopted LEED requirements which helped drive technologies as well as architectural and engineering knowledge.
Garbage haulers collect curbside recycled materials and take them to a sorting plant where marketable goods are separated. Formerly recycling required segregation into different waste streams – metal, paper, plastic - but no longer. Entrepreneurs developed equipment to sort recyclables, including magnets to separate different metals, and lasers to isolate dissimilar kinds of paper and plastic containers.
Companies or local governments then sell the goods to domestic or overseas buyers as a product, not a waste. Generators sent about a third of that ‘recycled’ material overseas, mostly to China.
The United States relied on cheap Chinese labor to set apart bulk waste into separate product streams typically then used as feedstocks for Chinese manufacturing firms. In 2018 China excluded 24 materials, including post-consumer plastic and mixed paper and raised the purity standards for other materials, and will formally ban the importation of all these materials in 2021.
Regardless of the Chinese restrictions, U.S. Census Bureau export data indicate the United States is still exporting more than 1 million tons of plastic per year. Countries like India, Vietnam, and Bangladesh, with lower wage rates, are now importing United States ‘recycled’ materials. Many of those countries are just dumping it directly into open-air landfills. Only 9% of plastic is recycled and as much as 2.4 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year, killing wildlife and destroying marine ecosystems.
A lot of what goes into those blue bins is not ‘recycled’ but landfilled domestically. Some states and cities prohibit landfilling plastic, paper, and cardboard, but some local officials — including in Oregon, Massachusetts, and various municipalities in Washington State — have granted waivers so that unmarketable materials can be sent to the landfill.
One of the worst offenders in the myth of the blue bin is waste-to-energy. In 2018 about 35 million tons of MSW were combusted in these facilities. Food made up the largest component of MSW combusted at about 22 percent. Rubber, leather, and textiles accounted for about 16 percent of MSW combustion while plastics comprised about 16 percent, and paper and paperboard made up about 12 percent. This meets the letter of the definition of ‘recycling’ as there is energy recovery, but the net amount of energy recovered is nominal or negative, and combustion of garbage is known to release levels of mutagens like dioxins and dibenzofurans in addition to greenhouse gases. The operators of these incinerators then landfill the residual ash which contributes to future environmental problems. In no way is waste-to-energy a sustainable technology or environmentally responsible.
Manufacturing materials overseas, shipping them to the United States, then distributing them to consumers, collecting the waste, sorting it, then shipping it overseas for ‘recovery,’ generates an immense amount of carbon.
The congratulatory back-patting and high-fiving over recycling rates ignore the fact that waste that is not created is not recycled and creates no carbon. The best way to fix recycling is probably persuading people to buy less, which would also have the benefit of reducing some of the waste created when products are made. Consumer waste minimization means redesigning products, processes, and changing societal patterns of consumption and production. Given the success of the recycling public relations campaign, such is not impossible, but it involves consistent and thorough education and product labeling, combined with regulatory requirements that mandate packaging of consumer products be minimized.
Waste minimization for the home is simple:
Another alternative is legislating Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) which is a tactic to place shared accountability for product management on the producers, distributors, and retailers involved in consumer products. EPR is a regulatory strategy to encourage product design and packaging changes to minimize a negative impact on the environment at every stage of the product's lifecycle. For instance, this would require cell phone manufacturers to recover used cell phones and responsibly recycle them.
This investigation poses certain questions for debate:
Raw data on waste generation and recycling was obtained at www.epa.gov. A robust presentation of China’s policy changes was obtained at https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2019/03/china-has-stopped-accepting-our-trash/584131/. A discussion of the state of the waste-to-energy status was presented at https://www.waste360.com/waste-energy/state-waste-energy-us. Recycling bulk commodity prices were provided by http://stuffrecycling.com/pricing.
Michael Donnelly investigates societal concerns with an untribal approach - to limit the discussion to the facts derived from primary sources so the reader can make more informed decisions.