It no longer makes sense to recycle

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For one, China’s decision in 2017 to no longer accept imported recycled materials is still in place, and is likely not to change in the near future..

For decades, the country was content to accept, process, and transform recycled materials from across the globe, but no longer. In July 2017, the government announced new policies that would effectively ban imports of most recyclables, particularly plastics. They went into effect last March. Considering that China has imported a cumulative 45% of plastic waste since 1992, this is a huge deal.

Where once China offered a market for the world’s plastic bottles, tubs, and other packaging to be turned into – for example – polyester clothing, now, that market is gone. This means that recycling costs have skyrocketed. A few years ago, Franklin, New Hampsire could sell recyclables for $6 per ton. Now, it costs the town $125 per ton to recycle that same stuff!

Municipalities across the country are facing this startling arithmetic, so hundreds are choosing the drastically cheaper option: throw most traditionally recycled materials in the trash, instead.

For another, it has become even more obvious that the cost of recycling is more damaging to the environment.

As Kinnaman discovered in a 2014 study – a complete life cycle analysis of the recycling process – it currently doesn’t make much economic or environmental sense to recycle plastic and glass in much of the developed world. Both of these materials are fairly easy on the environment to produce, but oftentimes very tricky and intense to recycle. When you factor in all of the water used to decontaminate plastic and glass, the immense distances traversed transporting them (usually by truck, train or ship), and the mechanical and chemical processes utilized to transform them into new goods, it becomes clear that they are better off in a landfill.

Will these facts cause local governments to change their laws and end recycling? Don’t bet on it. Recycling has never had anything to do with actually saving the environment. Its purpose has always been to make people feel good about themselves. Those emotions make it impossible for most people to consider these facts.

Try it. Tell you friends and family about these facts. You will find yourself faced with an unalterable skepticism that no fact can change.



  • Steve

    The irony is that people are spending time separating garbage into 3, 4 and sometimes more containers and putting them dutifully out at the curb. Then here comes the garbage truck and ALL the containers get uncereminiously chucked into the back end and mixed together! What a farce.

  • MJMJ

    I am in academia. You become persona non-grata, “one of them,” shunned, if you simply state that since China stopped taking our stuff, recycling plastic isn’t useful.

  • MJMJ

    I am under the impression that recycling at least some metals is good, particularly aluminum, which is very energy-intensive to extract from ore but takes only 5% of that energy to recycle.

  • Cotour

    I would like to make an observation here. Whether it is economically viable to recycle or not, and I will speak specifically about plastics in all of its forms here, at least from a political perspective, efforts to corral and recycle them should be undertaken.

    People are very conscious of plastics existing in the environment and many actively make efforts to not use or use much less plastic bags and associated materials. Why? Because they are 1. inundated with it in their homes, and 2. they see examples like fish, whales and dolphins consuming them and dying in the media. A very powerful visual.

    So from a purely political perspective it would in my opinion be wise for the Trump administration (Or any administration) to begin an effective effort to clean the environment of these materials whether it is perfectly financially viable or not.

    And again I see this more and more, and it is visceral, as I interact with the everyday people that I deal with every day.

  • wodun

    Cotour notes the real issue here. It isn’t about whether or not recycling saves money or that recycling is profitable for companies that do it. It is about the morality of how we deal with garbage. For people who feel this way, telling them that it costs more money to recycle will not matter. They think the extra cost is worth it. Even if you put the cost in terms other than money, like energy, water, carbon emissions, ect. rather than money, they still wont care.

    Does this process waste water? It isn’t a waste if you are making your offering appealing to the deity.

    It is religion and reinforced by ritual. People prepare their offerings by cleansing them and measure their devotion by how many offerings they have to offer. Every week or every other week, the offerings are left out for the magical servant that comes and takes their offerings away where they are transformed by secret rites and rise up from the dead to take on new life.

    We are dealing with the most primitive of human evolutionary behavior and it is often being done by people who view themselves as immune to religion and morally superior and more intellectually enlightened than other human beings.

  • Cotour

    This is a fundamental issue and whom ever demonstrates that they are seriously dealing with it in the environment will co opt the issue and will garner political points for doing so. Right now the Left owns the issue to the deficit of the Republicans. I say take it from them with ease.

    If Trump and his people would do so they would lessen some of the resistance that some of the everyday regular American Democrats and shopping for a candidate Independents who are environmentally concerned, and many are, have against him.

    IMO a wise political strategy that would not cost much and potentially would pay benefits in more ways than one.

  • Phill O

    Remember that Victoria BC dumps sewage into the ocean because the left wing nuts refuse to pay for waste treatment.

    So, the feel good will not do it if it costs THEM more.

  • wayne

    (One of) The major objection(s) the Chinese raised last year—the post-consumer plastic scrap they had been importing was becoming more & more contaminated with regular old garbage. These little municipalities might be good at concentrating plastic-scrap, (at great expense) but they often fail to adequately clean and sort it. You can completely contaminate a ton of scrap plastic into uselessness, with very little organic matter and/or mixing in the wrong type of plastic.

  • Cotour

    Supporting information regarding my proposal that the Trump administration co opt the “environment” issue and begin in earnest a program to recycle / reformulate plastics and the waste stream in general.

    The Israeli’s have a lot of these environment issues like water, plastics and the waste stream in the environment locked down. It would be wise in my opinion for the Trump administration to take real action here and usurp the Democrats and deny them the issue with real results.

    Trump the other day said” There are more important issues than plastic straws”, I beg to differ Mr. president. By doing so you will give those rational democrats and Independents on the fence reason to support you. And you may indeed need every vote in every state that you can garner.

  • Cotour

    A missed opportunity for the Trump administration.

    These pictures and video’s of these beaches piled high with garbage / plastics are visceral to those who view them.

    This is another issue that the Republicans can easily take from the the Left and probably come up with some real solutions that at least begin to deal with it in a positive manner. The issue of pollution in all of its forms is something that the everyday person, Left or Right can agree upon. Even if the fossil fuel “Carbon” foot print is not dealt with in any appreciable way, progress on the cleaning up of everyday trash is something real and visual and progress and rhetoric for those who attend to the issue can turn those on the edge to supporting the Trump administration.

    No one likes to see ugly garbage strewn beaches, everyone can agree on the subject. Its just good PR if nothing else comes from it, and some new effective technologies and techniques could come from the attention and the incentivizing of the issue.

    It would not take much and the political payoff could pay off bigly.

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