Is Recycling Worth It? Popular Mechanics Investigated its Economic and Environmental Impact - Americans haul 82 million tons of trash to recycling centers each year. But does it pay off-for the environment or the economy?
By Alex Hutchinson
The modern era of recycling began in the meandering wake of the Mobro 4000. The infamous garbage barge spent much of 1987 traveling up and down the eastern seaboard looking for a place to dump its 3000-ton load of New York trash. It was refused at every port. By the time the spurned vessel returned to Long Island, still ferrying its fetid cargo, it had become the poster child for what was trumpeted as a national crisis: dwindling landfill space. Faced with the scale of their own refuse, Americans took action. Nascent recycling programs blossomed into major operations. Municipalities invested in trucks for curbside pickups and in facilities to handle mountains of castoff material. Kindergartners were taught the virtues of separating clear glass from green. Almost overnight, it seemed, recycling was embraced by the public as a kind of all-purpose absolution for our environmental sins.
Yet doubts remained. Some critics wondered if, far from being an environmental panacea, recycling is actually a giant placebo that makes us feel virtuous but wastes both money and resources. Take the much- maligned plastic water bottle. It's almost always made from petroleum, a resource that certainly seems worth conserving, and if you chuck it in the trash, the container will live on in a landfill for centuries. But how much diesel fuel does the truck that collects these bottles burn? How much energy does the recycling plant consume; what fumes does it emit into the atmosphere? And what does it all cost, anyway?
The economic case for recycling certainly got off to a difficult start. The sudden rise of curbside recycling in the late 1980s created a new source of "raw" materials that industry wasn't yet equipped to exploit. Prices reflected that. Rumors spread that cities were paying exorbitant costs to get rid of recyclables-or were simply dumping them in landfills. When demand finally did pick up, it reached an unsustainable high: In the Pacific Northwest, for example, the price of a ton of mixed recyclables spiked from $33 in 1994 to $170 in 1995 and then plummeted back to $40 in 1996. This volatility in the recycling market discouraged further investment and provided more ammunition for skeptics.
In an influential 1996 New York Times Magazine article entitled "Recycling is Garbage," John Tierney summed up the skepticism by asserting there was no landfill shortage and that the depletion of natural resources wasn't a concern: "The [1970s] oil scare was temporary, just like all previous scares about resource shortages," he wrote. In fact, the whole concept of recycling was fraught with trade-offs, he argued: "Saving a tree is a mixed blessing. When there's less demand for virgin wood pulp, timber companies are likely to sell some of their tree farms-maybe to condominium developers."
Over the following decade, the price of recyclables inched upward, but the fear that recycling might be an expensive boondoggle remained unchanged. In 2004, magicians-turned-debunkers Penn and Teller filmed an episode of their television show that echoed Tierney's criticisms from eight years earlier. "The recycling industry creates pollution, has to be subsidized by the government because it's cost-ineffective, and is completely unnecessary," they declared. Meanwhile, recycling advocates were claiming exactly the opposite.
Current conditions are very different from those in 1996, or even 2004. The price of raw materials has skyrocketed in the past few years, and concerns about energy security and global warming now weigh more heavily in the debate. Still, the same two basic questions about recycling persist: Is it good for the environment? And does it make economic sense?
The Environmental Debate
According to one calculation, all the garbage produced in the U.S. for the next 1000 years could fit into a landfill 100 yards deep and 35 miles across on each side-not that big (unless you happen to live in the neighborhood). Or put another way, it would take another 20 years to run through the landfills that the U.S. has already built. So the notion that we're running out of landfill space-the original impetus for the recycling boom-turns out to have been a red herring. Recycling critics also question the wisdom of deploying fleets of large, fuel-hungry trucks that duplicate the routes already driven by garbage trucks to take recyclables to reprocessing facilities that burn energy and emit pollution. And the resources saved aren't always that rare: The virgin material conserved by recycling glass is mainly sand, and we're a long, long way from a "peak sand" crisis.
To resolve the environmental debate once and for all, experts have begun to conduct detailed life-cycle analyses on recycled goods, calculating the energy consumed from the moment they're picked up by recycling trucks until they are processed into brand-new products. When compared with the amount of energy required to send the same goods to landfills or incinerators and make new products from scratch, the results vary dramatically, depending on the material.
Aluminum, for example, requires 96 percent less energy to make from recycled cans than it does to process from bauxite. At the other end of the spectrum, recycled glass uses only about 21 percent less energy-but it still comes out ahead, according to a study by Washington-based environmental consultant Jeffrey Morris. Recycled plastic bottles use 76 percent less energy and newsprint about 45 percent less, he found. Across the board, the key factor is the energy intensity of extracting virgin materials, which is an order of magnitude higher than that of recovering the same material through recycling. "Even if you doubled the emissions from collecting recyclables, it wouldn't come close," Morris says. Overall, he found, it takes 10.4 million Btu to manufacture products from a ton of recyclables, compared to 23.3 million Btu for virgin materials. And all of the collecting, hauling and processing of those recyclables adds just 0.9 million Btu.
That doesn't mean the system is always efficient. The best recycling is closed-loop: Steel cans and glass bottles are recycled into more cans and bottles, which are in turn recyclable. But some materials are currently "downcycled" into less desirable products that can be recycled no further. Soft-drink bottles made from PET (polyethylene terephthalate), for example, often end up as polyester fibers in clothing or carpets. It is possible to make new PET bottles from recycled stock, but the process is currently more expensive than making them from petroleum. Supply and demand also come into play: Britain imports so much wine that recycled green glass is simply used as construction aggregate; recycling it consumes more energy than just sending the bottles to a landfill.
The Economic Debate
Thanks to life-cycle assessments, there's no longer any serious debate among policymakers about whether recycling makes sense environmentally. The economic debate, however, still rages. It's surprisingly difficult to get a clear picture of how much municipal recycling programs cost compared to landfilling or incineration, because of hidden subsidies and long-term price guarantees given to all types of waste disposal. But it's fair to say that, at this point, it generally costs a little more to recycle waste than it does to dump it.
Recycling economics are fundamentally local, since hauling and tipping fees-paid to trucking operations and processing facilities that handle waste-vary from about $24 per ton in the south central and west central regions of the U.S., to more than $70 in the Northeast, according to the most recent figures from the National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA). Other local costs also differ dramatically. Taking some very rough estimates for illustration, it might cost $150 a ton to collect and process mixed recyclables. The price those recyclables fetch reached about $100 a ton earlier this year-so if the cost of taking that material to a landfill is more than $50 a ton, the recycling program will be a money saver. With a national average tipping fee of $34.29, most curbside programs still cost money.
Those numbers are changing rapidly, though. This past summer, the price for virtually all recyclables hit record highs, boosted by larger market forces. Plastics are made from oil, which has caused the price for recyclable plastic to double in the past two years. Glass is made of cheap sand, but it also contains energy-intensive soda ash, so the price of recycled glass has risen in lock step with energy prices. But the biggest factor, says industry veteran Jerry Powell, the editor of Resource Recycling Magazine, is "the recycling market's most famous five-letter word, C-H-I-N-A." With its ravenous demand for raw materials, China benefits from ultracheap shipping in container ships that would otherwise sail back to Asia empty. "China is a tree-poor country," says Chaz Miller of the NSWMA, "so our recycled paper has become their forest, in a way."
Just as crucially, while the current record-high prices may not endure, few fear the precipitous plunge that rocked the recycling market in 1995. Buyers are seeking long-term contracts with a guaranteed steady supply, which helps smooth the market fluctuations.
If recycling is truly becoming profitable, then that should end the debate-we can simply let the market decide what to recycle. The problem, according to University of Michigan professor Richard Porter, author of The Economics of Waste, is that recycling markets don't function smoothly. If you drink a bottle of water, the apparent cost to you of throwing out the empty or recycling it are identical: zero. One way to create incentives for recycling is a "pay as you throw" policy, where homeowners pay for garbage collection based on the size of their garbage cans. More than 7000 communities, serving about a quarter of the U.S. population, have introduced this policy with success-their recycling rates are about 30 percent higher as a result.
From a consumer's point of view, one of the biggest knocks against recycling is the mind-numbingly complex rules about which plastics can be recycled when and in what forms. So those of us who don't live in San Francisco can only envy that city's residents, who since April have been instructed to toss any and all rigid plastic (and any other recyclables) into the same bin. From there, it goes to the city's state-of-the-art Recycle Central facility, where each day 700 tons of flowerpots, Mr. Potato Head toys and other items are swiftly sorted into the appropriate piles by an array of technological wizardry-magnets for steel, eddy currents that repel aluminum, spinning disks and vacuum tubes that suspend gravity for plastics-along with a phalanx of eagle-eyed humans wearing thick gloves.
This single-stream sorting technology isn't perfect. At some facilities, plastic bags snarl the conveyer belts, and broken glass contaminates other materials. But it represents the most important trend in recycling technology-and it's improving. Even though a typical single-stream facility costs $8 million to $10 million, more than double the price of a dual-stream facility (where paper is collected separately), they have increased in number from 70 in 2001 to 160 in 2007.
One major advantage of single-stream is convenience: When Madison, Wis., changed from dual-stream to single-stream in 2005, the recycling rate leaped by 25 percent in the first year, while the projected annual cost increased by less than $3 per household. It's a pattern that is being repeated elsewhere: About 700 of the country's 10,000 curbside programs have made the switch.
Another benefit is efficiency, since collection costs typically eat up 50 to 60 percent of the budget. "That means efficiencies at the curb are crucial," says Lori Scozzafava of the Solid Waste Association of North America. Houston, which boasts the nation's worst recycling rate (2.6 percent), has a voluntary recycling program that forces its trucks to drive long distances between pickups. Single-stream collection, on the other hand, speeds up the process dramatically, especially with new trucks that empty bins automatically. Besides saving money in the long run, this increased efficiency, along with the greater volumes that people recycle, is allowing more types of plastics to be recovered.
Even after the environmental and economic questions have been answered, the decision about how much to recycle depends on how you reconcile those two factors. "High recycling rates are usually a function of, first, a political decision, and second, the strength of local markets," Miller says. San Francisco's 70 percent recycling rate isn't enough for Mayor Gavin Newsom, who wants to ramp it up to 75 percent-even if that means making recycling compulsory. Houston's willingness to squander resources with its paltry recycling rate is also as much a political decision as it is an economic one.
Most cities lie somewhere between those two extremes. For them, recycling is generally desirable, but it's not automatically good and efficient and cheap. It takes significant up-front capital investment to implement a state-of-the-art single-stream recycling program.
For that reason, the newfound stability of the recycling market is just as important as the high prices, because it allows cities to plan investments around future revenue streams. "Chicago used to pay haulers to take its recycled materials," says Ed Skernolis of the National Recycling Coalition. Now, it has invested $24 million to buy recycling carts for 600,000 homes and will deliver the recyclables to a single-stream processing facility-which will now pay the city instead of being paid.
Ultimately, every community will develop its own unique program. "The bigger the city," Porter says, "the more you can recycle." The dividing line between environmental and economic factors will also begin to blur. On the Chicago Climate Exchange, the world's first greenhouse-gas trading market, the price for a ton of avoided carbon-dioxide emissions peaked at over $7 this summer. Morris has created a model for municipal waste decision-makers that assigns values to environmental impacts ranging from toxins to acid rain and greenhouse gases.
Most telling, though, is a recent study that found that about 90 percent of the material going to landfills has a market value. Given today's economy, we won't keep burying that value for long.