Is Recycling Worth It?
An inquiry into the fate of our waste
The overwhelming stench is the first thing I notice. It’s 2 p.m. and the sorting is done for the day, but there are still three 20-foot piles of cardboard, plastic bottles, and cans lying on the concrete floor. You might expect a recycling facility to be cleaner than a dump, but the building reeks. I see that some of the recycled materials are in translucent plastic bags that have torn. A smelly brownish orange-colored liquid drips out of one.
“Sorry about the smell,” says Greg Galietti. “You’ll get used to it in a little bit.”
Galietti is the director of development of Action Carting, a private waste management company in the Bronx that hauls New York University’s recyclables.
The recyclables are dropped off at the Materials Recovery Facility in the Bronx, where they are then sorted—by hand and machine—and sectioned into box-shaped bales that are weighed and sold to various vendors, who then process the recyclables into reusable materials.
Companies like Action Carting are intermediate or “secondary” processors. They sell the cleaned and sorted materials to manufacturers, who reform the materials into new goods. Many of these manufacturers are abroad—in countries that lack access to the resources in their virgin form. Recyclables are essentially a commodity, and their values change with the market. Thus recycling has, over time, become an “established market,” meaning that there are both buyers and sellers who exchange the goods in a sizeable amount.
Since July 1989, every building in New York City has been required by law to recycle. But many question whether that’s worthwhile – and some wonder if it’s actually happening at all. What happens to the bottles, jars, and newspapers that we so carefully sort and throw out?
A cost-benefit analysis would be a waste of time, since the value of various materials changes often. Costs of land for landfills differ from state to state, recycling processes and efficiencies vary from material to material and market prices change from country to country and month to month. So the better question is: does recycling actually save the environment? Or does it just create another form of waste?
The American recycling movement began in 1987, when a barge called the Mobro 4000 traveled from New York to Belize, trying futility to unload its trash. The barge left from Islip, Long Island with over 3,100 tons of garbage, bound for North Carolina. But rumors that the garbage contained medical waste caused the destination city to reject delivery. So Mobro continued south, only to be rejected by the Mexican Navy and by Belize. The barge turned around and came back to New York. The garbage was finally incinerated in Brooklyn.
The media coverage had a lasting impact on American society. Media and environmentalists cited the incident as proof of an American waste disposal crisis. The incident triggered a national discussion about public waste disposal, leading many to believe that recycling was the only option left. In May 1987, then-New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean signed a law requiring the separation of recyclables from trash. By 1999, over 4,000 communities had begun charging households to cart away their trash. The nation’s recycling rate rose to 22 percent that year, from 10 percent in 1980.
Is Recycling “Garbage?”
Nine years after the Mobro incident, New York Times writer John Tierney wrote a story titled “Recycling is Garbage,” questioning the widespread support for recycling. He argued that the cheapest option is to bury our trash—and that government expenditure on recycling programs is diverting funds away from other, more necessary social works initiatives. The Union of Concerned Scientists also released a statement that the incident was caused by poor planning rather than a shortage of landfill space. Neither Tierney nor the Union responded to interview requests.
You can now recycle your laptop, cell phone or old TV. These have been dubbed “e-waste.” The LCD screens on computers and TVs and plastics used to create the hardware can be reprocessed into other products, like construction materials.
At the Lower East Side Ecology Center, the screens and similar glass components are first separated from the plastic. The materials are then shredded by laser shredder into irregular, two-by-two inch pieces. “The idea is that there’s nothing you can’t recycle,” says Development Director Caroline Kruse. “The zero landfill policy really means that nothing is going into the landfill.”
Kruse, a Connecticut native, has an undergraduate degree in ecology and evolutionary biology from Princeton University. She says that recycling is sustainable as long as sorting facilities are profitable. This means, the more materials a facility collects and sorts, the less it costs to sort each pound. “You want to run the shredder and feed it all day long and work your people all day. And you don’t want contamination.”
Contamination happens either when materials are sorted incorrectly—for example, a plastic item ends up with paper materials—or when the recycled materials are dirty.
But Duke University Professor Michael Munger cites the requirement for cleaning and sorting as a reason why recycling is a waste of time. In fact, Munger compares recycling to religion. He gives an example of a woman who once told him, “Recycling is cheaper regardless of the cost.” Munger calls that a moral imperative, something you do out of compulsion rather than economic sense. He references Raleigh, South Carolina, where recycling facilities collect glass, but then take it to a landfill. “There was a political demand for glass,” says Munger. “Everybody knows it’s not economical to recycle glass but we want people to get into the habit.” Munger has written papers and given talks about recycling as a fraud. His underlying statement makes sense: “The point is, you should recycle things you can make money from recycling.”
Tom Szaky was an undergraduate at Princeton University when he found a way to make his green beliefs profitable. In 2001, Szaky began using worms to create fertilizer from garbage—they ingest the waste and their excrement is a useful fertilizer. He raised funding and soon established a company called Terracycle. In 2007, Szaky began creating new products from recycled pouches. Rather than breaking down materials to recycle them, the company “upcyles” the materials—the pouches are fused together to create a stronger material that can be sewn into other products, and the plastic in chip bags is melted down and molded into trash cans and lunch boxes.
Today, Terracycle makes about 200 products—such as backpacks, pencil cases and corkboards — sold at major retailers like Walmart. The company is for-profit, and has managed to follow Szaky’s philosophy: turn garbage into gold. “Why can’t you do good and do well?” spokesman George Chevalier. By innovating new ways to use old materials, Terracycle has created a niche for the profitable sale of upcycled goods—and they’re cheaper than the same products made from virgin materials. The best part is, when you’ve worn out those goods, you can send them back to be upcycled again.
Munger’s thoughts? “Those products are great—I would buy one. I would even pay a little extra for it, if I wanted it.”
Recycling has become cost-effective. White office paper is the most valuable, at $200 per ton. Galietti admits that some months, the price of the materials doesn’t cover the cost of operations, but there is never a month when he doesn’t recycle the sorted materials. The facility has been running since 1999. “I always recycle every month,” he says. “If the price drops, I cut two to three people. My goal is that in the long-run we make a profit.”
According to Berry, of Earth911.com, the demand for recycled materials has increased in recent years as more manufacturers have begun using them. “We have a demand for recycled materials that often isn’t met,” she says. “For example, the demand for recycled plastic bags. We don’t recycle enough bags to meet that need.”
Last June, the local government of San Francisco passed a law mandating both recycling and composting—with the failure to observe punishable by a minimum $100 fine, which increases with repeat offenses. In Seattle, sanitation workers enforce the mandatory recycling law. They tag unsorted trash and leave it behind, and until the waste is properly sorted, it remains on the curb for neighbors to see. Shame is a useful tactic, Brett Stav, a planning and development specialist for Seattle Public Utilities, told The New York Times; by 2009 recycling had improved by 10 percent since the program was implemented in 2003.
Other cities, including Cambridge, Pittsburgh and San Diego, also have mandated recycling laws, but do not enforce those laws with fines.
Recycle Bank awards “points” to members who send in recyclables—those points can be exchanged for coupons and gift cards at various retailers.
So it seems that while Tierney may have been right about recycling inefficiencies 20 years ago, his points have changed as technologies and manufacturing processes have developed to absorb the supply of recyclable materials. The demand for recyclables has gone up, the cost of processing them has gone down, and the need for minimizing our environmental impact has heightened. Even a skeptic like Munger admits, “Sometimes it makes sense to recycle.”
Isha Dandavate recently graduated in journalism and international relations from New York University.