Is chucking a soda can in the trash an unforgivable sin? That depends who you ask: You’ll find plenty of people on both sides of the great recycling debate, each equally convinced the other side is ill-informed. The truth is that opponents and proponents alike often rely on facts that are outdated, oversimplified or simply untrue. We tackle five of the biggest myths about recycling. For more, check out the December issue of Popular Mechanics.
1. We have to recycle because we’re running out of landfill space.
That was the rallying cry for recycling advocates back in the 1980s, when the Mobro 4000 garbage barge wandered up and down the East Coast searching for a place to dump its moldering load. It’s a bit of a red herring, though. After all, we have pretty much unlimited space to dump garbage—if we’re willing. In practice, for every town that refuses permission to build a landfill, there’s often another town eager for the revenues that a landfill site can bring.
According to the National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA), the United States has about 20 years of disposal capacity left in existing landfills. There are, however, places where space is getting tight: Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, North Carolina, New Hampshire and Rhode Island all have less than five years capacity, and the northeastern part of the country in general has the least available landfill space.
These regional variations point to a different motivation for the “recycle to save landfill space” argument. The average tipping fee at landfills in the Northeast region, according to the most recent NSWMA figures, is over $70 a ton, compared to a national average of just $34. In other words, even if the scarcity of landfill space turns out not to be a strong environmental argument for recycling, there can be powerful economic incentives to reduce landfill intake.
2. The trucks that collect recycling burn more energy and produce more pollution than recycling saves.
Collecting recyclables isn’t cheap—it eats up about 50 to 60 percent of the budget of a typical curbside recycling program, according to Lori Scozzafava of the Solid Waste Association of North America. And the trucks burn gas and emit pollution as they go. That said, “You’re going to collect waste one way or another,” points out Jeff Morris, a Washington-based environmental consultant. A recycling program should allow garbage collection to become less frequent (or to use fewer trucks), offsetting the cost and energy involved. Plus, new truck designs can collect both recycling and garbage (at different times), avoiding the huge capital expense of an extra fleet. They can also self-dump specially designed bins, saving time and manpower.
But all that turns out to be pretty much irrelevant to the question of whether recycling makes environmental sense. Scientists have conducted hundreds of “life-cycle analyses” to compare recycling with other options like landfill and incineration, following the entire chain of events from the manufacture of a product (using either virgin or recycled materials) to its disposal. The dominant factor in virtually every case is the enormous amount of energy required to turn raw materials into metals and plastics compared to the energy needed to reprocess products that already exist.
A study by Morris found that it takes 10.4 million Btu to manufacture products from a ton of recyclables, compared to 23.3 million Btu for virgin materials. In contrast, the total energy for collecting, hauling and processing a ton of recyclables adds up to just 0.9 million Btu. The bottom line: We don’t need to worry that recycling trucks are doing more harm than good.
3. Thanks to the sky-high prices of raw materials, cities are getting rich by selling recyclables.
In the past year, prices for almost every kind of recyclable have hit record highs, sparking a frenzy of activity in the recycling industry. “If you’re wondering where all the used-car salesmen have gone, they’re rushing into recycling,” says Jerry Powell, an industry veteran who edits Resource Recycling magazine. That translates to profits for many players—in fact, Powell says, “if you can’t make money in recycling right now, you should get out of the business.”
Unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily mean that your local city council is getting a cut of the action. “Some cities are still locked in unfavorable long-term contracts and paying tipping fees,” says Ed Skernolis of the National Recycling Council. That means that these cities have to pay to collect and sort their curbside recycling—and then pay someone to take away these now-valuable materials instead of being paid for them.
Given how much the price of recyclables has fluctuated in the past, these contracts made sense for cities when they were signed: Locking in costs allows municipalities to budget properly. But now, global contracts ensure a large fraction of U.S. recycling ships to China, so the recycling market has less volatility as well as higher prices. As municipal recycling contracts come up for renewal, cities like Chicago are finally able to turn their piles of cans, bottles and newspapers into a stable revenue stream.
4. All the paper, plastic, metal and glass dumped in recycling bins has to be painstakingly (and expensively) sorted by hand.
When municipal recycling was first catching on in the 1980s, it wasn’t clear how carefully people would sort their recyclables. “Some towns used to have a dozen different boxes for different types of bottles, cans and so on,” recalls Richard Porter, a University of Michigan economics professor who authored The Economics of Waste. Not everyone was eager to devote that much effort to sorting up front—but it was either that or pay people to do it by hand at the end of the line, which was prohibitively expensive.
These days, processors are beginning to move toward “single-stream” material recovery facilities, which allow homeowners to dump all their recycling in one bin and rely on machines to do the dirty work. According to Eileen Berenyi, a consultant who studies solid waste management, the number of single-stream facilities in the U.S. jumped from 70 in 2001 to 160 in 2007.
Such state-of-the-art facilities now feature magnets to attract steel, eddy currents to deflect aluminum, infrared spectrometers to identify different types of plastics, and a host of other sorting technologies. These plants are expensive, so they only make sense if 100 to 200 tons of recyclables are being processed daily, and they still require some human sorters to oversee the process. But the collection costs of picking up a single bin, rather than multiple ones, are much lower—and because it’s easy for homeowners, the recycling rates are higher—so the overall economics of mechanized sorting pays off.
5. Most of the plastic put in recycling bins ends up in the garbage.
This one is true now, but changing quickly. Sorting plastics is tricky for recycling processors. Bottles can’t be separated out with a magnet; small pieces like coffee-cup lids get flattened and mixed into paper bales; bags get caught in the spinning disks of sorting equipment, forcing frequent shut-downs. Trying to decode the recycling numbers on plastic products is also a pain for consumers.
As a result, it’s true that most of the plastic we use does end up in landfill sites. Less than 1 percent of polystyrene containers (e.g. yogurt pots) are recycled, and even well-established recyclables like PET (e.g. soft-drink bottles) end up in the trash more than two-thirds of the time. But the problem isn’t that recycling programs are dumping recyclable plastic into the trash—it’s that they don’t accept the plastics in the first place.
That problem is on the way out, though. This spring, San Francisco announced that its pioneering recycling program would begin accepting all rigid plastic, including anything from yogurt pots and clamshell containers to plastic toys and buckets. Other cities are also expanding the range of plastics they accept. New technology makes this feasible: Optical sorters use infrared light to instantly identify the chemical composition of a container, then a puff of air directs it into the right pile.
Recyclers also have to find a market for plastics once they’re sorted—and that’s starting to happen, too. San Francisco recently signed a deal to sell rigid 5-gal buckets, common in construction, to a company that will turn them into artificial lumber for landscaping.