Recycling Ain't What It Used to Be

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It took me a long time to accept that I was connected in any way to the hipster movement. Wearing full-rimmed glasses, getting around on a vintage road bike, and exclusively drinking craft beer didn’t qualify me by any means when I lived in Oregon, but now I can’t deny that I’m at least a little bit hipster.

The first rule of being a hipster is that you’d never refer to yourself as a hipster, but I’m only doing it to claim latitudes. Now that I’ve accepted myself, I can dive headfirst into what seems like a favorite hobby of hipsters: deeming something “over” even though it isn’t over yet and even though they still partake in whatever trend they’re complaining about.

Recycling is over, at least in the hipster sense. It isn’t actually over yet, and I’m still going to do it, but I’m not going to do it enthusiastically. Enthusiasm hasn’t been hip since 2003 anyway.

My position may surprise you if you’ve read some of my other blogs. I entered into engineering specifically to make an impact on sustainability and am now co-president of Engineers for a Sustainable World here at Northwestern. Recycling is a cornerstone of the sustainability movement; environmentalists everywhere are encouraging America to recycle like it’s a religion because it’s an attractive alternative to dumping waste in a landfill.

The problem is that recycling is a terrible alternative to reuse and reduction. My chemical engineering perspective includes an awareness of where things come from and how they become something else, an awareness of the entire life cycle of something. For those of you readers that usually inhabit the purchase, use and disposal steps of that cycle, let’s take a behind-the-scenes tour of the rest.

Discarded items must be collected, hauled, processed into useful materials, hauled again, incorporated into products, hauled up the supply chain, and then sold in a climate-controlled, lit store. According to data from 2002, those steps amount to 3,580 lbs of carbon dioxide emissions per ton of paper product, whereas managing paper waste with an 80/20 mix of landfill and incineration amounts to 2,500 lbs.

Cyclic accounting tips the scale the other way, but reuse and reduction still dominate the field. Let’s walk through three different scenarios involving two consumption cycles of a ton of paper. 

In order to compare apples to apples, we need to examine two life-cycles so that recycling can occur in one scenario. Every ton of virgin (new) paper produced is accompanied by 3,300 lbs of CO2 emissions. A scenario where both life-cycles start with virgin paper and end with terminal disposal (landfill or incineration) requires 6,600 lbs on the production side and 5,000 lbs on the disposal side for a whopping total of 11,600 lbs of CO2 emitted. 

A scenario where the two life-cycles are linked via recycling only requires 3,300 lbs on the production side and 2,500 lbs on the disposal side, but it requires 3,580 lbs in the recycling process for a total of 9,380 lbs of CO2 emissions. Recycling seems like a winner, but it's still a terrible alternative to a third scenario. If the two consumption cycles of paper can somehow be merged, for instance by printing on both sides of the page or taking a paper bag back for a second or third trip to the grocery store, only 5,800 lbs of CO2 emissions are required.

Recycling can make a positive impact, but I’m worried that recycling isn’t a gateway into more impactful habits – that it allows people to feel good about the purchase, use and discard steps of the consumption cycle without encouraging people to bypass the cycle. It washes over the energy, water and material inputs throughout the steps that are behind the scenes.

Those inputs are also expensive, which is putting the entire recycling industry in jeopardy. CEO David Steiner of Waste Management Corp. was quoted last year in Forbes Magazine as saying, “Recycling is not profitable. We have lost money in recycling over the last one and a half years.” The article then optimistically posits that “virgin materials over the long haul will continue to get more expensive, and technologies and new business models are getting more adept at extracting value from castoffs.”

This competition between virgin materials and post-consumer ones varies by industry, varies by the amount of processing required to make discarded materials useful again. Recycling paper is competitive, but recycling glass is not, to the point where some recycling companies resort to sending their collected glass to landfill. Regardless of industry, the fundamental problem with this competition is that the costs of recycling will increase with the costs of virgin material production because both processes involve energy, water and material inputs.

I think people tend to feel good about recycling, which makes me a Debbie Downer with this post, but it also means that it’s time to move on. I think that those positive feelings associated with environmentally conscious actions are the best lever environmentalists have for steering societal habits, and if people feel great about recycling, the pivot will stop there. Jumping the gun on trends is what enables hipsters to be trendsetters, but this isn’t a matter of fashion. If recycling stays in vogue as the apex of environmental consciousness, we’ll never be pointed down the path to a truly sustainable society.

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