As commodity prices plummet, opponents are indicting recycling as too impractical and costly. The debate came to a head late last year when The New York Times posed the ultimate question: Is recycling worth it?
Its answer: probably not. But most of us working in the waste, recycling, public policy, environmental and health fields would respond with a full-throated, “Yes, it is.”
Recycling — hand in hand with other advanced waste management practices — plays a vital role in shutting down the true enemy of the environment: landfills.
The primary argument against recycling is an economic one: the costs don’t justify the benefits. In down commodity markets, this line of reasoning goes, the cost of recovering materials (and energy) is higher than the cost to produce and use virgin materials.
Most of us in the waste and recycling community would agree that recycling should stand on its own. And it’s true that recycling may not always pencil out by itself. However, this math overlooks the enormous impact of externalities such as carbon and methane emissions, damage to public health and loss of resources. Even at today’s recycling rates, the avoided greenhouse gas emissions alone represent $8 billion to $12 billion a year in avoided future costs associated with climate change.
There are many reasons, however, to continue recycling in down markets when sluggish global growth drives down raw material prices.
First, the materials have intrinsic value, which will increase when the market recovers. Because the success or failure of recycling programs hinge on human awareness, behavior and habit, it’s counterproductive to start and stop recycling programs too frequently, leading to wasted resources.
Second, experience shows that when we stop innovating during difficult times, we fall behind, impeding progress when the good times return. Like commodities, waste generation cycles often mirror that of the global economy; the upside is that down cycles force us to find ways to increase productivity, brainstorm new business models, and drive down costs to stay competitive.
It’s time to think of recycling and zero-landfill programs as critical components of a broader strategy for end-of-life materials and important weapons in the fight against climate change, water contamination and various other environmental and social challenges.
This approach begins with the “reduce and reuse” mantra, where reducing demand for new products and materials reduces carbon emissions, pollution and waste associated with production, transportation and disposal. Recycling is the next leg of the journey, and serves to recover value from goods already made while avoiding the use of virgin materials.
For waste that can’t be effectively recycled, we move to an oft-maligned strategy that is widely successful around the world: responsibly burning waste to generate electricity.
Recovering energy from non-recycled waste offers myriad benefits — from the obvious reduction of unappealing landfills, to offsetting a ton of carbon for each ton of waste burned, to generating enough electricity to power a million homes in just the U.S. each year. Most people don’t realize waste-to-energy plants generate more energy than many major solar and wind projects.
Working together, and following countries like Austria, Germany and the Netherlands, all with exemplary recycling rates augmented with energy recovery, we could save over 260 million tons of CO2 annually — equivalent to closing over 60 coal-fired power plants. We could save the energy equivalent of 14 percent of our imported oil, all while generating 350,000 new permanent jobs and $130 billion in direct economic activity.
By contrast, landfills are among the most harmful environmental hazards we face today. Landfills are the third-largest source of methane, which is over 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period, and emit over 170 other air pollutants, including over 40 hazardous air pollutants, four known carcinogens, and 13 probable carcinogens. Recycling can help mitigate those emissions.
And while recycling opponents talk about how difficult it is to recycle, the industry has continued to find innovative ways to make it easier. By making recycling part of our everyday experience, our time and effort shapes a new mindset focused on strengthening the community.
In just the last few decades, a new recycling mindset has transformed human habits around waste disposal. Technology and a more comprehensive recycling strategy have sparked new green industries, bringing jobs, improved energy security, and protected communities, as well as generating impressive value for citizens.