Our disposable culture makes products and packaging that we eventually throw away. We consume natural resources to achieve this placing us in ecological debt and filling landfills fast. The signs overwhelmingly point towards our ecological debt getting worse. Recycling is the preferred method to solve these problems, but is it the solution?
We are running out of landfill space, particularly in the UK. Landfills can be horribly polluting, so given this recycling and composting makes more sense than just throwing things in the garbage. Recycling saves the energy and resources otherwise required to make new products. For example, it takes 70% less energy to recycle paper than when making it from raw materials. Most of the energy savings created by recycling are due to avoiding the huge energy requirements to mine or extract raw materials.
The problem is recycling can’t keep up with what producers create and consumers throw away, particularly single-use plastics. We need another solution. Materials Recycling Facilities (MRFs) (pronounced “murfs”) are constantly running to keep up with new types of materials, especially plastics, which contaminate the recycling stream or cannot be physically recycled. Our inability to keep pace with the stream of waste means the excess is incinerated and turned into energy to power homes. At first glance this is better than landfilling, but incineration still uses raw materials to replace what was incinerated, and creates air pollution.
As a system, recycling is not efficient. If it were, we would continue to recycle objects as similar objects, removing the need to use raw materials. The reality is that more often than not materials get downcycled into materials of lesser quality. Plastics are commonly downcycled – plastic bottles are downcycled into synthetic fibers which go into making things like fleece jackets and carpet, rather than into more plastic bottles. This does not stem the need to use more raw materials; it just delays it for a short while.
There are many economic benefits to recycling. Recycling is a market that puts a value on materials, which would otherwise go to waste, to be recycled into new products. Therefore, recycling can generate income for a local economy. In doing so, it also creates jobs. For example, in the European Union (EU) between 2008 and 2014the turnover of seven main categories of recyclables was more than €60 billion.
The reality is that our waste that is not recycled is incinerated or ‘recycled as energy’. Where recycling doesn’t make economic sense incineration is a better option than landfill, but only when the best technology is available to ensure there are no negative externalities. The danger is that incineration may be an easy option, and therefore increase the risk of pollution from incineration plants. Incineration is also problematic as it needs to show a return on investment through energy revenue which means that governments that have heavily invested in this expensive technology are more likely to lean towards its adoption as a waste treatment method instead of recycling.
Recycling is economically viable only when the recycling market is strong. The recycling market fluctuates. If raw materials become cheaper to use, then the recycling economy suffers. The emphasis on recycling itself can impact demand and the price of raw materials. For example, in 2008 the emphasis on recycling in the EU and the financial crisis caused the demand for raw materials to plummet and dropped the price of raw materials which caused the turnover of recycling to decline sharply at the end of 2008.
Two widely varying factors need to align to make recycling successful: government commitment and strength of local recycling markets. This alignment does not always happen, particularly in financially stressed or developing countries where other more pressing priorities take over. Not to mention the significant upfront capital required to build non-polluting recycling or incineration plants may not exist.
The local recycling market can be impacted on a global scale if significant players change their policies to boost the turnover of their recycling market. In July 2017, the world’s largest recyclable materials importer, China, announced that it will not be importing less valuable waste from abroad. This applies equally to countries within the EU, where 87 per cent of recycled plastic collected was exported directly or indirectly to China. This has put pressure on recycling in countries relying on the Chinese recycling market and, unfortunately, more dumping has been allowed in exporting countries and the stockpiling of recyclables.
Recycling is problematic, but it may be the best solution we have so far. Nevertheless, we should remind ourselves that recycling is not the ultimate solution and put more emphasis on reducing our consumption and finding ways to reuse. Recycling should not be relied upon to solve our resource use and waste problem.
 “The Reign of Recycling“, by John Tierney, New York Times.
 “The Myth of the Recycling Solution“, by Lisa Kaas Boyle, Plastic Pollution Coalition.
 “Is Recycling Worth It? PM Investigates its Economic and Environmental Impact“, by Alex Hutchinson, Popular Mechanics.
 “Recycling still the most effective waste disposal method, report finds“, by Juliette Jowit, The Guardian.