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Recycling addresses the Symptom, not the Cause

November 6, 2018

I’ve been working in recycling a long time. These days, however, we seem to be in an ongoing materials management version of “Back to the Future.” As an industry we are back to fretting about how much it “costs to recycle.” Recycling markets are in disarray; recycling programs around the country are abandoning glass as a collected material. Some programs are scaling back in other ways.

Despite the fact that we’ve increased the numbers of recycling programs and infrastructure around the nation to where recycling should be ingrained in our national psyche, we still have an anemic recycling rate of just over 30%. Moreover, materials recovery facility (MRF) operators and haulers are having to roll-out new “back to the basics” customer training programs because so many Americans remain unaware of what should go in their recycling bin or cart; many toss virtually everything in, from bowling balls to disposable diapers to plastic bags to full jars of pasta sauce.

While we hope that going back to the basics and ramping up our recycling reeducation tactics will bring much needed short-term financial relief to processors and municipalities, it will do little to help us advance the creation of a sustainable economy and society. Furthermore, these tactics seem unlikely to raise recycling rates or fix long-term recycling markets. One reason why is that recycling addresses the symptom, not the cause.

For purely financial considerations, we’ve shut down much of the manufacturing that used to occur in this country, including industries that were using recyclables in their product manufacturing. Industries moved overseas and a substantial volume of our recyclables were shipped to China and other developing nations because wages were low and shipping relatively cheap. Now China doesn’t want our recyclables, so we’re sending them to other Asian nations.

The volume of waste we generate continues to rise, with more and more nonrecyclable material in it. Take plastics, for example. A recent global analysis published in the journal Science Advances found that of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics produced, 6.3 billion metric tons have been deemed “disposable” and become plastic waste. Only nine percent has been recycled. The majority of this waste will sit in landfills for hundreds of years or end up as litter washed away in our waterways; it is estimated that 8 million metric tons of plastic ends up in the oceans every year…“the final sink.”

We are producing higher volumes of “disposable” plastics, doubling production roughly every 15 years. But even more striking is that the study found that one-half of the resins and fibers used in plastics were produced in just the last 13 years. Thus, plastic manufacturers are producing ever more varied types of plastics.

Plastic is different than other materials used in our society. Fifty percent of the steel manufactured, for example, is used in construction. Thus, as a material, the lifespan of steel is typically decades-long. By comparison, the study found that half of all plastic manufactured becomes trash in under a year.

Recycling gets a new ad campaign, and we can feel good about cleaning up the recycling stream and improving our diversion efforts. However, focusing overmuch on consumers’ responsibility for reducing waste and the recovery of secondary materials is unlikely to achieve the long-term desired results. Until we hold manufacturers responsible for the consequences of increasing production of disposable packaging and products, talk of a sustainable economy or even successful recycling, is just that—talk.

Municipal and state governments, along with citizens (either directly through fees or indirectly through taxes) fund the burden of our waste creation, because the price of goods or services that produce waste do not include the cost of waste disposal or recovery. Nor does the price of our goods or services reflect the loss of resources used in manufacturing them, or even much of the associated pollution.


/Diagram explaining externality. Mikm at the English language Wikipedia. (CC BY-SA 3.0) and Discard Studies

Economists term this a “negative externality”. An externality is cost or benefit placed on a third party without compensation. This, shifting the cost of disposal from manufacturers to consumers has benefited industry through a negative externality.

Some states that have adopted extended producer responsibility (EPR) have, to an extent, addressed economic externalities on some products, such as electronics, batteries, paint, and mattresses. Placing the burden of disposal of these products back onto producers, EPR policies motivate affected product manufacturers to internalize the cost of disposal and to establish effective ways to recycle and divert these materials from the wastestream.

Similarly, deposit systems for beverage containers help internalize the cost of recycling, by requiring consumers to pay a deposit that promotes recycling and funds a system that defrays the costs of recycling these containers.

Will we as a nation ever address the real causes of our recycling predicament?

By Athena Lee Bradley

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