Are we recycling TOO much?

Yes, we are recycling too much. Depending on your understanding of what recycling is, you may agree or disagree with the previous statement. Recycling is a business. In most cases it is not a government service, but a business being contracted by a municipality to service the community.

To give you an idea on the state of the recycling industry, consider this. Recycling businesses used to share the profits of the recycled scrap they sold with the municipality that hired them. Currently, municipalities (tax payers) need to pay the recycling companies because the market for their product has dropped that significantly. When it comes to matters of profit, they are currently fighting a battle on two fronts, input (variable and contaminated) and demand (low).

The first front they are fighting on is their input, or the components that make up their product: our recyclables, the things we throw away. This input is highly variable, and as participants we have little guidance or understanding of the implications of our role. Should we? We don’t work for the recycling industry, and we certainly don’t get paid… Consider how peculiar a situation that is. We, as the general public are the first line of input to a 200 billion dollar worldwide industry. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the biggest problems with the recycling process also starts with us. It is contamination. This means that things are going into the process (specifically the sorting machinery) that shouldn’t be in their. Those things could be trash, food waste, batteries, diapers, and a host of other non-recyclable articles. 

Imagine the week’s recyclables from your entire city being dropped off in one location. Tin, aluminum, cardboard, paper, and all sorts of differently graded plastics are all mixed in with numerous contaminants. All of these materials need to be separated and organized into the same material batches. As you can imagine, it is an intimidating task that is very labor intensive. Often it can be dangerous, due to contaminants such as batteries which can start fires, or needles and dirty diapers. Did we mention that contamination rates are at an all time high? Regulations can be confusing, and vary from town to town. We put together a cheat sheet to help us remember what the numbers on the plastic mean, feel free to check it out here.

The second front that recycling companies are fighting on is a lower demand for their product. We won’t go into detail, as there are dozens of fantastic articles written (NPR piece) about the “why’s” and “how’s,” but this is very important. This was a bomb dropped on the recycling industry: China stopped importing the world’s recycling due to high contamination rates and pollution concerns. They went from importing 700,000 tons of U.S. plastics to essentially nothing.

Now, with lower demand comes lower prices. So now you’ve got an inefficient and difficult process, coupled with a market that is no longer demanding your goods. What China did was actually twofold. First, it exposed an industry with some issues. They were able to get away with it because they had a massive, indiscriminate buyer. Secondly, they are putting the recycling industry in a position where they need to adapt, evolve, and improve their product. Long term, might this be a good thing?

The recycling industry has gone from sharing the profits of its final product with municipalities, to charging municipalities in order to make up for higher production costs and lower demand. Taxpayers are unwittingly and effectively subsidizing the recycling companies. Further problems sadly implicate mother nature. There is a lot of plastic and would be recycling that needs a home. The excess is finding it’s way to landfills, incinerators, and poor countries that do not have the capacity to deal with it.

Check out our simple visual we have created to help illustrate the problem:

On a more positive note, there is a solution that starts with us. We want recycling, even if it’s not always profitable because we can all agree it is good. It is good for the environment, and it is in our best interests. But recycling is only part of our environmental solution and not the solution. That is a hard pill to swallow, because we really like tidy, compartmentalized solutions. Placing our recyclables in a neat bin and setting them at the curb never to be seen again was a fantastic way to make ourselves feel good. And that’s when the alarm should have gone off in our heads - nothing good comes that easy. In order to really solve this, we need to do more and we need to do it together. 

We need to start taking steps to recycle less, because we are indeed recycling too much. We are using too much in general. We need to become conscious of items that we use once, and then discard; because as we’ve learned, recycling an item does not necessarily mean that we are doing a good thing. That item could end up in an incinerator or landfill due to a contaminated batch. There are plenty of items that simply cannot be recycled. Cities in states such as California, New York, Maryland, Massachusetts, Maine, Florida and more are taking the lead to ban straws and styrofoam containers. We need to actively avoid one time use items and embrace better solutions. The good news is, there are a plethora of companies, blogs, and individuals who are doing their very best to fashion these solutions and make them convenient and widely available.

If we recycle less we will be effectively reducing the supply of recyclables moving through the recycling process. When the input of recyclables shrinks, recycling companies will be forced to become more efficient, and make more attractive bids on municipality contracts. Thus, lowering tax payer dollars needed. Ideally the supply of US recyclables should go down. In theory scarcity should result in a higher price point for those goods; boosting profits for the recycling industry.

As we become more educated and recycle more diligently, the contamination percentages of our recyclables will fall. The recycling processes will become more streamlined, lowering costs, further padding recycling profit margins. Between now and then, we remain hopeful that new technologies and innovations will further improve the process. Aside from improving the recycling process, recycling less fulfills the common sense goal of less over all waste. It is in harmony with becoming conscious about how we are treating the planet and living our lives. We all know simplicity is good, and less can most certainly be more.

They say a butterfly flapping its wings in China can result in a hurricane halfway across the world. Well if that’s true, we’d like to invite you to think of the opportunity that presents to do some good. For example, couldn’t it also be true that if you take the time to properly recycle your waste this week, a forest may bloom in 100 years because of those actions… an empowering thought.