3 reasons why recycling is failing


May 22, 2021,12:00am EDT|1,109 views

Three Reasons Recycling Is Failing

Jeff McMahonSenior ContributorSustainabilityFrom Chicago, I write about climate change, green technology, energy.

A villager sifting through plastic waste in the village of Bangun, Java. Indonesia has become a … [+] AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Part 1 of 2

Many people think of recycling as their primary environmental action, yet recycling as it is currently practiced does relatively little to mitigate environmental catastrophes like climate change, according to experts who convened last month.

“To be of benefit, recycling needs to be done well, and our current recycling system is delivering some mixed results, especially as we continue to export contaminated recyclables to countries that lack adequate infrastructure,” said David Allaway, a senior policy analyst with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

“As a state, we currently recover around 40 percent of our solid waste,” Allaway said, “and if we could bump that up to 90 percent recovery it would reduce climate impacts—but only by about 3 percent.”

Recycling produces its strongest benefits when it displaces the extraction of materials (like ore or oil) at the beginning of the production process, Allaway said in a webinar hosted by the Environmental and Energy Study Institute. It produces additional, though smaller, benefits by reducing emissions from landfills and incinerators and by conserving energy.

But Recycling is done poorly in the United States, and that’s partly because the American public is confused about what and how to recycle, Allaway said. Their confusion leads to high levels of contamination (such as plastic bags or food-soiled cardboard in recycling bins). The contamination leads to increased costs for themselves, the ratepayers, and the governments who collect the recyclables.

But the public shouldn’t shoulder the blame, Allaway said, because the ratepayers and governments are effectively subsidizing both the companies that produce the materials and those that purchase them after recycling. That fundamental economic misalignment, he said, contributes to these three root challenges to the success of recycling:

1 Underinvestment

The climate and environmental benefits of recycling are not reflected in its economics. “Recycling can reduce costs to society through reducing pollution and climate change, but these benefits are not reflected in the economic signals that industry and local governments are responding to,” Allaway said, “and this leads to an under investment in recycling.” Consumers and governments are collecting materials for producers who pay much less for them than the cost of collection. 

2 Under-Participation

Because producers are left out of recycling’s economics, they have less incentive to reconsider packaging or product design. “There is a significant gap in the responsibility involving consumer brands,” Allaway said. “These producers have the unique power to influence changes in packaging and product design and create market demand for recycled materials and reduced price volatility, but they are largely absent from our current policy framework.”

3 Unchanging Laws

Many recycling laws were designed 30 to 40 years ago, Allaway said, when the economics of recycling were driven largely by newspaper. Since then, newspaper has all but disappeared from the waste stream. Waste handling has changed dramatically, and the laws haven’t kept up. “Thirty years ago nobody anticipated that we would mix our recyclables together, or that we need processing facilities to sort them out, or that we’d export them to distant lands with less environmental regulation and infrastructure.”

Read Part 2: Three solutions to the failure of recycling.

“We should reduce first,” Allaway said, “and only then recycle.”

Jeff McMahon: I’ve covered energy and the environment since 1985, when I discovered my college was discarding radioactive waste in a dumpster. That story ran in the Arizona Republic, and I have chased electrons and pollutants ever since—for dailies in Arizona and California, for alternative weeklies including New Times and Newcity, for online innovators that led to the modern Forbes. I’ve wandered far afield—to cover the counterrevolutionary war in Nicaragua, the World Series Earthquake in San Francisco, the UN Climate Change Conferences in Copenhagen and Paris. I also teach journalism, argument and scientific writing at the University of Chicago. Email me at: http://bit.ly/JeffMcMahon

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