Is Recycling Wasteful?



This past week, The New York Times featured an article on costly, complicated and inefficient recycling by John Tierney.   It was upsetting.   Mr. Tierney is a noted writer about social sciences, thriving on controversies in science and medicine.  Written in 1996, his first NYT article on the topic, Recycling Is Garbage, was widely quoted, positively and negatively.

In 1995, third graders in NYC were learning the Three R’s — Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. The year they were born, a barge named the Mobro 4000 wandered thousands of miles trying to unload its cargo of Long Islanders’ trash.  Its journey caused the citizens of the richest society in the history of the planet to become obsessed with their garbage.

Consumer hungry Americans in a throw away culture started to embrace recycling as an act of moral redemption. Recycling would compensate for our excesses.  This obsession let corporations shift the cost of dealing with their disposable products from themselves to the consumer and the taxpayers.

John Tierney stresses that decades of elected officials and corporate leaders  emphatically urging us to participate in curbside recycling hasn’t made it any cheaper to recycle our household waste than to send it to a landfill.  He argues that we are diverting money and energy from genuine social and environmental problems.

Ideally, recycling is a profit motivated endeavor to get used resources back into the consumer chain.  These mostly single use materials still have more value than taking up space in a landfill only to replace them with more.  Tierney thinks the resources are still so cheap that burying them is economically viable.

Politicians are setting higher and higher recycling goals, but the national rate has stagnated in recent years at 34%.  It’s popularity in affluent neighborhoods like Park Slope, Brooklyn with rates upwards of 70% and cities like San Francisco claiming 80% feels really good and sets standards that motivate us to keep going.   A competition broke out between the two resulting in statistical one uppery.

In 2001, New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, suffered the consequences of putting an 18 month moratorium on recycling during his first term.  It was costing the city $4.76billion or twice as much to recycle as to landfill its garbage.  He felt the funds were needed elsewhere but the citizens fought back.  Bloomberg went from no recycling to competitive recycling!

As more cities move  into recycling food scraps and plastics, the costs rise sharply while the environmental benefits come into question.  “If you believe recycling is good for the planet and that we need to do more of it, then there’s a crisis to confront,” says David P. Steiner, the chief executive officer of Waste Management, the largest recycler of household trash in the United States. “Trying to turn garbage into gold costs a lot more than expected. We need to ask ourselves: What is the goal here?”


The future for recycling needs to address many areas.  One significant area would be products that are designed without recycling in mind.  Correcting this problem would require rethinking our industrial processes, says William McDonough, author of “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things”.   With his co- author, Michael Braungart, they lay out a vision for establishing “closed-loop” cycles where there is no waste.  Recycling should be taken into account at the design stage and all materials should either be able to return to the soil safely or be recycled indefinitely.  Mr. McDonough has worked with companies like Ford and Google.

An outgrowth of “Cradle to Cradle” is the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, a non-profit group in Virginia who  developed guidelines that go beyond traditional packaging design and emphasize the use of renewable, recycled and non-toxic source materials.  Founded in 2003 with just nine members, the group now boasts nearly 100 members, including Target, Starbucks and Estée Lauder, some of which have already begun to change the design of their packaging.

Sustainable packaging not only benefits the environment but can also cut costs.  Wal-Mart, the world’s biggest retailer, reduced the amount of packaging it used, saving $3.4 billion and reducing carbon-dioxide emissions by 667,000 tones.      By recycling more of its waste, they avoid disposal costs at landfills and make money selling their waste at market prices.

There is plenty of room for further innovation in recycling. New ideas and approaches are needed such as Pay As You Throw programs, more emphasis on redeemable glass container reuse, and reducing the frequency of garbage/recycling collections resulting in trips to transfer stations or landfills.

Meanwhile a number of cities and firms (like NY, San Francisco, Wal-Mart, Toyota, Nike) have adopted zero-waste targets. This may seem unrealistic but Matt Hale, director of solid waste at America’s Environmental Protection Agency, says it is a worthy goal.  It can help companies think about better ways to manage materials.  It forces them to look at the entire life-cycle of a product and ask if the amount of material can be reduced to begin with or can the product be designed to make recycling easier?

The goals of recycling should be to save energy, raw materials and reduce pollution.  It is important to recycle more, recycle better and design more uses for recycled materials.

The main point is that recycling diverts our attention from the more difficult behavioral changes of reduce and reuse.  The absolute best recycling is the least need to recycle.

How You Can Help:

  • Bulk buying reduces packaging and trips to the store.
  • Buy products that use sustainable or no packaging.
  • Buy better stuff that lasts longer.
  • Avoid single use products.
  • Make your own stuff!  Its fun!
  • Consider recycling when you buy.  Plastic is expensive and inefficient to recycle.  Glass should be redeemable or reused. Paper should be glue and grease free.  Metal retains its integrity through the most recycles.
  • Buy local and bring your own containers to transport your items home.
  • Do you really need that item?
  • Find others who can use your unwanted items.
  • Buy less stuff.

Until next week,  images

Garbage Girl




2 thoughts on “Is Recycling Wasteful?

  1. Interesting article! No, recycling is not wasteful activity but an essential one! It is the first step when our society goes for a zero waste living. I’ve heard about a project that convert plastic waste into oil and gas with no greenhouse gases during it. Products themselves are still polluter but that little step for the man is a giant leap for the mankind and the environment! Greetings, Waste Removal Acton Ltd.


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