If Recycling Doesn't Actually Help the Planet, Then What Should We Do?

In 1996, New York Times writer John Tierney wrote a long, meticulously researched article about the state of recycling in America that didn't win him any friends in environmental circles. In it, he concluded that recycling may be "the most wasteful activity in modern America: a waste of time and money, a waste of human and natural resources."


Almost 20 years later, Tierney has revisited the recycling issue in a followup piece and come to a similarly gloomy conclusion. "Despite decades of exhortations and mandates, it’s still typically more expensive for municipalities to recycle household waste than to send it to a landfill," he writes. "When it comes to the bottom line, both economically and environmentally, not much has changed at all."

The issue is more complex than that, as some of Tierney's myriad critics have pointed out. For one thing, it depends on what you recycle. "The value of recycling depends on the material in question," writes David Biello, an associate editor at Scientific American who has long covered environmental issues. "And whether all hidden costs and benefits go into the analysis."

But the ongoing debate over recycling misses a much more critical issue: We consume too much to begin with. Instead of asking ourselves what to do with all our crap once we're done using it, we should be asking whether we really need all this crap in the first place.

Is recycling really a waste?

Could the recycling rhetoric be drowning out the recycling reality? Perhaps, at least in some cases. Glass, for example, is costly to recycle and is made from a readily available material: sand. Steve Shannon, an ecologist and municipal services manager at Balcones Resources, a recycling firm based in Austin, Texas, said it costs up to $90 to process a ton of glass, which only fetches $10 per ton on the market. “What makes recyclables valuable is their rarity," Shannon said. "Trees are scarcer than sand."

Tierney goes after glass recycling in a big way. "For every ton of glass ... that the truck delivers to a private recycler," says Tierney, "the city currently spends $200 more than it would spend to bury the material in a landfill."

But looking only at the cost of recycling misses the whole picture: Because crushed recycled glass melts at a lower temperature than the virgin components of glass, producing recycled glass uses less energy than making new glass. As Biello points out, "A simple cost-benefit analysis does not correctly measure the environmental costs of dumping plastics or cutting down more trees for paper products."

Tierney suspects that recycling rhetoric is a form of moralizing on the part of the affluent, and maybe he has a point. 

"Recycling intuitively appeals to many voters," writes Tierney. "It makes people feel virtuous, especially affluent people who feel guilty about their enormous environmental footprint. It is less an ethical activity than a religious ritual, like the ones performed by Catholics to obtain indulgences for their sins."

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When it comes to water, the best environmental choice is to avoid single-serve bottles and drink water from the tap and use reusable bottles. (image: PortlandOregon.gov)

"What is a socially conscious, sensible person to do?" Tierney asks, offering up a carbon tax on garbage, which was suggested by Thomas C. Kinnaman, an economist at Bucknell University. Perhaps that's a fine idea, but focusing environmental efforts on recycling misses the forest for the trees — or perhaps more to the point, the forest for piles of old newspapers. Instead of looking at how much waste we produce and how to recycle it, we should look at how much we consume. The goal shouldn't be zero-waste, but zero-impact. And that means less consumption.

Reduce, reuse ... and decouple?

We human beings are the planet-eaters, consuming the Earth's resources at an alarming rate. "By 2050, humanity could devour an estimated 140 billion tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass per year — three times its current appetite," warns the U.N. Development Program (UNDP). In order to help slow or stop the downward spiral, the U.N. says we must "decouple" economic growth from natural resource consumption — and the environmental impact of that consumption. [[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"603893","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"504","style":"font-size: 12px; width: 600px; height: 425px;","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"711"}}]]

(image: United Nations)

"Global economic and social development over the last two centuries has been largely achieved through intensive, inefficient and unsustainable use of the earth’s finite resources," write Zeenat Niazi and Anshul S. Bhamra of Development Alternatives, a social enterprise dedicated to sustainable development based in New Delhi, in a brief for the 2015 Global Sustainable Development Report. "The global challenge today is to lift one billion people out of absolute poverty and to set the pathway for meeting the needs of nine billion people in 2050 while keeping climate change, biodiversity loss and health threats within acceptable limits (planetary boundaries)."

Of course, globalization has meant we are heading in exactly the wrong direction. A 2011 report by the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) found that international trade in particular, by enhancing energy use and resources flows, impedes decoupling. This is something to think about next time you buy something that was foreign made and came a long distance. An item that needs to get on a plane or container ship and travel thousands of miles to get to you has a much bigger environmental footprint than the same item produced locally. It may have helped the economy and workers of a foreign economy, but its true cost is high. [[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"603894","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"388","style":"width: 600px; height: 361px;","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"645"}}]]

(image: United Nations)

"People believe environmental ‘bads’ are the price we must pay for economic ‘goods,’" said U.N. Under Secretary-General Achim Steiner, UNEP’s executive director. "However, we cannot, and need not, continue to act as if this trade-off is inevitable. Decoupling is part of a transition to a low carbon, resource efficient green economy needed in order to stimulate growth, generate decent kinds of employment and eradicate poverty in a way that keeps humanity's footprint within planetary boundaries.”

Homo consumeris: I consume, therefore I am

In her 2007 animated film The Story of Stuff, activist and filmmaker Annie Leonard explores the life cycle of material goods and in the process, discovers that the global materials economy is a system in crisis. The reason, she says in the film, is that, "It is a linear system and we live on a finite planet and you can not run a linear system on a finite planet indefinitely. Every step along the way, this system is interacting with the real world … It’s interacting with societies, cultures, economies, the environment. And all along the way, it’s bumping up against limits … We are cutting and mining and hauling and trashing the place so fast that we’re undermining the planet’s very ability for people to live here."

Leonard, who was named the executive director of Greenpeace USA last year, presents some worrisome facts:

  • Only 1-2 percent of original forests in the U.S. remain undisturbed
  • 40 percent of the nation's waterways have become undrinkable
  • In the past three decades alone, one-third of the planet’s natural resources base have been consumed

Do citizens and policymakers truly care? In America, don't bet the ranch on it. After all, we live in a society in which you can get seriously injured or even trampled to death by a stampede of rabid Black Friday shoppers. "Our problem," says Leonard, "is not just that we're using too much stuff, but we're using more than our share."

Green guilt: Forgive me Earth, for I have sinned

But Americans and our counterparts in other rich countries just love buying more stuff and consuming more resources. But consumption, the carbon emissions that result from it and the impacts of the subsequent global warming are not equally shared. It's a kind of trickle-down environmental destruction — and eco-injustice — in which the poor suffer the worst impacts of the excesses of the rich.

Tierney contends that recycling is "popular in affluent neighborhoods like Park Slope in Brooklyn and in cities like San Francisco, but residents of the Bronx and Houston don’t have the same fervor for sorting garbage in their spare time." If that's true, could it be that rich people just feel more guilty about their environmental impact?

According to a 2010 Reader's Digest poll, the greatest amount of so-called green guilt around the world comes from not recycling enough. In the U.S., the seeds of guilt may have been sown decades ago, watered by the tears shed by the Native American in the famous "Keep America Beautiful" TV commercial that aired in the 1970s. "Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country. And some people don't," says the commercial's narrator as the Native American sadly observes trash in the streams and streets of the place that was once his home. "People start pollution. People can stop it."



Every American alive in the '70s probably saw that commercial. In addition to appealing to a nation's heart, it drew from the wellspring of America's deep cultural shame. By framing pollution in colonial terms, the litterbug was as bad as the oppressor. Americans were shamed into being green. So what if Iron Eyes Cody wasn't even a real Native American? He offered a salve for a guilty conscience: The country could start making amends for genocide — if only everyone would properly dispose of their trash.

Sauv blanc empties go in the blue bag, s'il vous plaît

Whether or not our green actions are born out of guilt, looking at the numbers, it boils down to what rich-world individuals choose to do or not do, use or not use. Citizens of developed countries consume 16 tons of the earth's four key natural resources — minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass — every year, on average. The average Indian, on the other hand, consumes (a mere) four tons per year. No wonder one of the main messages from the U.N. is that (rich) people have to learn how to do more with less.

Less flying around would be a good start, especially flying in luxury. Tierney contends that "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" in coach (or up to 100,000 for business or first-class seats — adjusting for the additional space pricier seats take up). Put another way: If you choose business or first class, you are more than twice as bad for the environment as someone sitting in coach.

It's clear that when it comes to personal behavior and individual responsibility, some tough choices must be made before we can even dream about enjoying the bourgeois privilege of recycling empty bottles of Sauvignon blanc from New Zealand, which just recently started exporting more wine to the U.S. than to neighboring Australia. That means more wine traveling longer distances and greater emissions. Granted, some bottles of New Zealand wine now come with a carbon footprint label, adapted for each export market, so the intrepid can calculate the true cost of their oenophilia. But since for glass, as Tierney notes, "you have to recycle three tons in order to get about one ton of greenhouse benefits," you may want to consider boxed wine — organic and locally sourced, bien sur.

Friedmanomics redux: The business of business is sustainable business

While some American consumers may be getting more savvy about their consumption choices on an individual level, several nations — including Germany, South Africa, China and Japan — have made policy changes to support decoupling. Imagine our climate change-denying Republican-dominated Congress doing that. And it's not even just policymakers who must act. The private sector is a critical piece of the puzzle. 

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Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (right) visits an indigenous community affected by deforestation in Indonesia, which has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world. Less than half of the country’s original forest cover remains. (image: M. Garten/United Nations)

"Business is instrumental in transforming land use practices to stop deforestation," writes Jeff Hayward, climate program director at Rainforest Alliance, a conservation NGO based in New York. "Sustainable sourcing of soft commodities grown on the land discourages converting forests to cropland and encourages sustainable management of forests." Hayward, who led the Rainforest Alliance’s delegation at the annual Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change from 2007 to 2011, points out that the so-called "B-Team" — a group of CEOs from more than 40 of the world’s largest companies — have urged world leaders to commit to net-zero emissions by 2050 instead of 2100, themselves committing to "long-term targets and driving low-carbon solutions to scale."

But words are not actions, as Pope Francis recently reminded the U.N. General Assembly during his historic visit to New York. "Solemn commitments…are not enough," he said, calling not only for "a will which is effective, practical and constant," but also "concrete steps and immediate measures for preserving and improving the natural environment."

In his 1996 article for the Times, Tierney writes:

Should you recycle today's newspaper? 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. Less virgin pulp means less pollution at paper mills in timber country, but recycling operations create pollution in areas where more people are affected: fumes and noise from collection trucks, solid waste and sludge from the mills that remove ink and turn the paper into pulp. Recycling newsprint actually creates more water pollution than making new paper: for each ton of recycled newsprint that's produced, an extra 5,000 gallons of waste water are discharged.

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Crew at the Emmet County, Mich. recycling plant works on processing paper for recycling. (image: Climate Kids/NASA)

In January, a Worldwatch Institute analysis of global paper consumption and recycling found that recycling one ton of paper on average saves 26,500 liters of water, about 318 liters of oil and 4,100 kilowatt-hours of electricity. Those are impressive figures, but in the U.S., millions of tons of paper isn't recycled. In 2013, the U.S. recycled a little more than half of the 20.7 million tons of paper the nation produced.

The bottom line? Use less paper — and only sustainably sourced paper. Or better yet, don't use paper at all. Switch newspaper and magazine subscriptions to digital versions. Stop printing everything out; if you must, use both sides. And there's a financial benefit: According to the WWF, reducing paper use in the home and office results in "potential savings are up to 10 times the purchasing costs of paper, through reducing the cost of storage, toner, printing, labour, postage and disposal."

Recycle? Depends. Decouple? Definitely.

When it comes to reducing consumption, everyone has a role to play — private and public sectors, rich and poor, men, women and children. If there's one thing we all share, it's our planet. Excluding any stakeholder's needs from the solution — including those without a voice —  is a grave mistake. As the Pope told the U.N. General Assembly, "The misuse and destruction of the environment are also accompanied by a relentless process of exclusion."

But clearly the greater responsibility to enact change falls on the rich world, which needs to get beyond separating plastic, glass and metal and stop consuming so much plastic, glass and metal to begin with. And nations must separate material and energy flows from social and economic progress. Achieving decoupling, the U.N. says, requires an "urgent rethink of the links between resource use and economic prosperity, buttressed by a massive investment in technological, financial and social innovation, to at least freeze per capita consumption in wealthy countries and help developing nations follow a more sustainable path."

Decoupling then — at least by freezing per capita consumption in wealthy countries — is meaningless without the participation of the United States: Americans produce a third of the world's waste with less than five percent of the world's population. Indeed, our responsibility to change our personal behavior is greater, because we are a bigger part of the problem. "If everyone on the planet was to live like an average American," write Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees in their book Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth, "we would need five planets."

As Tierney shows, it may be time to rethink recycling, but that misses a much bigger point: It's time to rethink consuming — and also time to decouple consumption from economic growth. Bo Normander, director of Worldwatch Institute Europe, puts it bluntly: "The current model of consumer societies is destroying the planet and its resources."

Ultimately, it's not about recycling. It's about not getting on the cycle in the first place.

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