Recycling is a key component of a circular economy, but on its own is far from a complete solution to waste. In 2018, recycling diverted only 32% of waste from landfills and only 9% of plastic. That’s down from the 35% average we’ve been at for the last 15-20 years.
Source: EPA National Overview
To understand the failure of curbside and single stream recycling you have to look back to the early days of the waste management industry. The industry was born out of the need to solve a specific problem - get rid of the trash that was overwhelming our cities. As the industrial revolution kicked into high gear our capacity to manufacture new stuff exploded, but our ability to deal with that stuff after it was used lagged behind. By the early 20th century, urban centers like London and New York were drowning in their own trash. As the stench and burgeoning health crisis grew out of control, armadas of trash men were formed to haul all of the waste away from cities. These armadas are the foundations of our modern waste management industry, which is currently valued around $30 billion and employs almost 200,000 people. (US Bureau of Labor) Our cities would not be what they are today had we not done something to improve the cleanliness of the streets. But the solution of hauling trash out of the cities and dumping it into landfills or incinerators isn’t a complete solution, it’s just relocates the problem to somewhere we don’t have to see or smell it every day. It’s still a noxious heap of garbage, or a toxic cloud of smoke; it’s just in the middle of nowhere – out of sight, out of mind.
But after a couple decades of this “cradle to grave” mentality, we began to realize that…
We’re damaging our environment in a way that is unsustainable
Resources will not last forever if we continue to treat them like an all you can eat buffet.
It was clear that a change of course was necessary. Ironically it was companies from the waste hauling industry that we turned to for answers. Why is this ironic? Let’s say you want to improve the overall health of the nation by reducing the amount of processed and fast food we eat. Would you rely on McDonald’s and Burger King for the solution? Of course not, they have billions of dollars invested in serving on-demand cheeseburgers. So when you ask companies with billions of dollars invested in equipment that hauls trash, to reduce the amount of trash that needs to be hauled - can you expect an effective solution? No. You can expect something like the recycling industry we have today; one that captures a meager 32% of the nearly 300 million tons of waste we create and doesn’t really “recycle” anything at all, but rather downcycles waste into materials with limited potential for reuse.
The waste management industry was built to haul trash and it’s very capable of doing just that. But when we asked them for recycling solutions - they essentially gave us a different colored trash can. The recycle bin…
Adds no accountability to who puts what inside of it
Has no safeguards from contamination like organic content and non-recyclable material
Costs us more money when it should be a source of revenue
And gives us a false sense of environmental stewardship.
A trash hauling business needs brawn and volume to be successful, but that model doesn’t work for recycling. You can’t effectively recycle a waste stream that's commingled and contaminated to begin with, then collected and compacted alongside of our trash. With collection rates stalled at less than 35% for more than a decade and a secondary material market in disarray after China closed its doors to sub par post-consumer content, it’s clear that we’re on the wrong path in the way we approach recycling.
An questionable take on how to "Keep America Beautiful"
But to find the root of the problem, you have to look beyond the hauling companies. One of the biggest roadblocks to recycling today is that so many of the products made are essentially un-recycleable. Think of making a product in the same way you would bake a casserole. You start with ingredients like green beans, cheese and salt (just like you would start with materials like high density polyethylene, terephthalate or aluminum to make a product). With ingredients in hand - you mix, season, stir and cook them until you have a casserole worthy of the dinner table. But after dinner, when your family has had its fill of casserole, is there a way to get your cheese or green beans back from what you didn't eat? Sure there is, but not without a whole mess of other ingredients mixed in, and not in a state that would allow you to make a new casserole. What’s more likely is a downgrade to leftovers, which can be great, but never quite as good as the original. Materials being made into products follow the same logic. When products are made of numerous different materials that are glued, melted and fastened together; then coated with paints, inks, dyes and preservatives - the recyclability of the material used to make them drops exponentially. Yes, an empty salad dressing bottle can go through the recycling system and find its way to a plastics recycler, but the numerous materials that make it up (clear PET bottle, white HDPE cap, printed paper label, adhesive, unused dressing still in the bottle) will be processed as one cohesive unit. The resulting “recycled” material will be inferior to the raw materials that were used to make the original bottle. They will come out the other side as a low grade resource fit for products such as carpet fiber or insulation. Of course this is better than putting it in a landfill, but it’s not a long term or complete solution by any means.
The ineffectiveness of our recycling system can be attributed to 2 primary conditions:
Reliance on a waste industry that’s heavily invested in the status quo.
Product design that does not incorporate any kind of recycling or re-use.
This article isn’t intended to convince you not to recycle, because even inefficient recycling is better than landfilling or incineration. But it is meant to make you feel a little uncomfortable. Maybe the most insidious component of single stream recycling is the peace of mind it provides. If you donate $100 to a charity you’re going to feel good about it, right? But what if you come to learn that only $32 out of the $100 went to the cause for which the charity exists, and the rest went to cover “fees” or “administrative costs.” Would you still feel good, or would you be angry?
Recycling programs alone are a band-aid for a bullet wound; they’re designed to treat the symptoms of a larger problem; but do nothing to address the problem itself. Worse off, they only treat 32% of the symptoms (waste) and they do it poorly. If we’re going to fix our waste problem we need to go beyond recycling. We need a circular system, where reuse and recovery are components of design instead of after thoughts.