All hail recycling, it will save the planet. Well, maybe not

Photo by Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
Photo by Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Recycling is not a panacea, even as it makes one feel virtuous. However, the benefits are not nearly what most think they are. Some high quality trash like certain cardboard, paper, plastics, and aluminum cans are worth recycling. Everything else, not so much. Recycling is expensive. The falling price of oil (what plastics are derived from) is cutting demand for recyclables even more.

If all those bottles, cans, and plastics are washed before going in the recycle bin, then carbon benefits may be illusory. With lowered demand, a lot of trash, recycled or not, ends up in landfills outside of big cities where they aren’t running out of space and welcome the business.

Recycling doesn’t really work in small towns in rural areas. Parowan UT, population 3,000, made a concerted effort to implement recycling. The problem was, the recyclables had to be trucked long distances to recycling plants and it was simply too expensive.

Here’s some perspective: To offset the greenhouse impact of one passenger’s round-trip flight between New York and London, you’d have to recycle roughly 40,000 plastic bottles, assuming you fly coach. If you sit in business- or first-class, where each passenger takes up more space, it could be more like 100,000.

New York and other cities instruct people to rinse the bottles before putting them in the recycling bin, but the E.P.A.’s life-cycle calculation doesn’t take that water into account. That single omission can make a big difference, according to Chris Goodall, the author of “How to Live a Low-Carbon Life.” Mr. Goodall calculates that if you wash plastic in water that was heated by coal-derived electricity, then the net effect of your recycling could be more carbon in the atmosphere.

“It makes sense to recycle commercial cardboard and some paper, as well as selected metals and plastics,” he says. “But other materials rarely make sense, including food waste and other compostables. The zero-waste goal makes no sense at all — it’s very expensive with almost no real environmental benefits.

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