The world is facing a waste crisis. An exploding population, combined with rapid development and increased reliance on materials like single-use plastics has meant that we’re facing literal mountains of trash every day.
The average American produces 4.51 pounds of trash a day up from 2.68 pounds in 1960. Recycling has long been touted as the solution, but there are downsides to recycling too.
Pros and cons of recycling
Recycling can be an important part of waste management: effective recycling of all kinds of materials can prevent them from clogging up landfill, polluting the environment, and can avoid the environmental strain caused by manufacturing new items.
However, there are many issues associated with recycling. It’s important to understand these complexities in order to make more eco-friendly decisions not only around how you deal with your waste, but in how you live your life more generally.
Advantages of recycling
Before we dive into the issues and challenges associated with recycling, let’s take a look at the benefits of this approach and why it can be valuable in some circumstances.
It helps reduce pollution
Traditionally, the world has dealt with its trash in one of two ways, both of which cause pollution:
- Incineration: Burning trash, whether in your backyard or an industrial incinerator releases heavy metals and other toxic chemicals into the atmosphere, leading to acid rain and other environmental issues.
- Landfill: Landfill is a benign term which essentially means dumping huge piles of trash on land, or sometimes dug into the earth. As the waste breaks down, it releases toxic materials into the air such as methane and carbon dioxide, and may also leach contaminants into the ground, causing soil pollution and potentially contaminating groundwater.
In addition to these types of pollution, landfill also causes other kinds of environmental degradation. Most notably, large tracts of native habitats are cleared to make way for landfill, resulting in deforestation, which can, in turn, threaten endemic species, lead to water scarcity, and contribute to climate change.
One of the major benefits of recycling is that it can greatly reduce the amount of trash we send to landfills or incinerators, helping to reduce pollution as well as avoid other environmental problems associated with these approaches.
Additionally, responsibly recycling hazardous waste ensures that it won’t pollute the environment and threaten human health. For example, one quart of engine oil can contaminate over two million gallons of fresh water if not disposed of properly.
For advice on how to recycle or otherwise responsibly dispose of tricky household items, see our posts on LED light bulbs, kitchen knives, propane tanks, and broken glass.
It cuts energy and resource use
By recovering materials rather than sending them to landfill, we don’t need to mine or manufacture new ones, thereby protecting our planet’s limited resources.
Furthermore, the mining and manufacturing industries damage the environment in a range of ways from clearing native habitats to leaching toxins into the soil and waterways and emitting greenhouse gasses which contribute to climate change.
Therefore, recycling materials can help to scale back these activities and reduce their negative impacts on the environment.
Recycling also helps to save on the energy needed to make these new products and materials. Although the recycling process uses some energy, this is generally much less than manufacturing new materials.
Glass, for example, requires less energy to recycle than manufacture, as existing glass melts at much lower temperatures than its raw materials. In this way, recycling helps to reduce fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as having economic benefits.
Recycling raises awareness of environmental issues
Getting people to recycle can have impacts far beyond the initial effect of recycling that plastic bottle or BRITA filter. By getting more involved in this process and making an effort to dispose of our trash more responsibly, we become more conscious of our eco-footprint.
Essentially, going through our trash and recycling what we can makes us think about the environment and how we impact it, on a regular basis. It makes us think about how much waste we create, and may well encourage us to take steps to reduce this.
Furthermore, for anyone who wants to be more eco-friendly, recycling can be an easy first step to take, as well as being a great way to teach kids about environmental issues. It can also be an important part of a mindset shift that may open people up to be more environmentally-friendly in other ways too.
In some cases, this can pave the way for other lifestyle choices that go even further to protect the planet, such as composting, installing solar panels, or avoiding palm oil.
Recycling can save you money
Not only can recycling be beneficial to the environment, but it can also be advantageous to your wallet.
You can make money through recycling certain materials, most notably some types of metals – learn how here. You’re unlikely to earn large amounts this way, but it’s something!
Some towns also offer cash incentives for recycling glass items or aluminum cans. Products made from recycled materials are often cheaper, so opting for these kinds of products can save you some cash.
The recycling industry creates jobs
Recycling is a labor-intensive process: large numbers of people are needed to run recycling facilities, from transporting and processing waste to creating new products from recovered materials. In this way, the industry can create a range of skilled and semi-skilled jobs.
Ecocycle.org estimates that we would generate around 1.1 million jobs in the USA if the recycling rate increased to 75%. Currently, we recycle around 30% of solid municipal waste.
According to the same organization, recycling and reuse creates nine times more job opportunities than incinerators and landfill sites.
Furthermore, the recycling industry has the potential to drive economic growth, creating new jobs as it does.
Pitfalls of recycling
While recycling can be environmentally, socially, and economically beneficial, the wide-spread and aggressive campaigns promoting it over the past few decades have overlooked its risks and downsides. This has also led to it becoming something of a band-aid solution that can allow us to overlook the more challenging, underlying causes of our waste problems.
Our recyclables may be exported
China took almost half of the world’s recycling waste for decades, until they banned the process in 2018. In the years immediately before the ban, many Western countries exported large volumes of their recyclables there: in 2016, the US alone sent them 16 million tons of paper, metal, and plastic.
Of these, around one third were not recycled due to contamination, and ended up littering the Chinese countryside and oceans instead. We continue to send our recycling to low-income countries across the world such as Kenya, Senegal, Ethiopia, Ghana, Laos, Bangladesh, and Cambodia.
Not only does this pass the waste problem on to others who are probably less equipped to deal with it, but it means we lose control of the process and how much of these materials are actually recycled. Not to mention the greenhouse gas emissions generated by transporting literal mountains of trash across the globe.
We also lose control of how this waste is handled, as the Chinese example shows: around 1.5 million metric tons of plastic is dumped off the coast of the country every year. It’s disturbing to think how much of this may be our own waste that we dutifully sent to recycling.
Furthermore, as more countries institute bans against accepting foreign recyclables – Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia quickly followed China and introduced laws against importing plastic waste – we need to look for other options. As a result, we’re increasingly relying on countries with poor environmental protections, opening this situation up to even worse impacts on the planet.
Recycling inadvertently encourages us to use disposable items
Critics say that recycling gives us a false sense of security, as it makes us feel like we’re solving our waste problem, when really it’s only slowing down or delaying the damage we’re causing the environment.
Recycling isn’t really the ultimate solution to pollution and waste management as it uses large amounts of energy, is expensive, and can be hazardous to people and the environment if not done properly.
Furthermore, plastics can only be recycled a limited number of times: usually once or twice, so we still need to keep manufacturing more plastic items.
It can even encourage us to use non-recyclable materials. For example, not all plastics are readily recyclable, but many people don’t understand this, so may use them under the false assumption that they can be recycled.
In this way, recycling can potentially do more harm than good by allowing us to justify using disposable items, not to mention using energy and resources as well as producing pollution and greenhouse gasses during the manufacture of these items and during the recycling process itself.
Recycling programs also fail to address our biggest source of waste. In the US, food waste makes up the biggest proportion of municipal trash.
Food can’t be recycled, so by focusing on recycling as the main solution, we’re overlooking this key issue. Food waste not only clogs up landfills and emits pollution as it breaks down there, but producing much more food than we need has a range of negative impacts on the environment, from the use of toxic fertilizers and pesticides to contributing to climate change.
Recycling requires consumers to carefully prep their recycling
Another major problem is it relies on individuals to prepare their recyclables properly before putting them out curbside or sending them to a recycling facility.
Recyclables can be contaminated by food waste or because they’re mixed with materials the recycling facility won’t accept, such as straws and plastic bags. Such items are a huge red flag for recycling centers as they could get stuck in machinery and damage very expensive equipment.
If items are not thoroughly cleaned and properly sorted it not only makes that item unrecyclable, but it contaminates the whole load. Essentially, one greasy food container could mean that an entire truck of recyclable materials gets sent to landfill.
Recycling uses energy and can generate pollution
Unlike reducing and reusing, recycling is a fairly energy-intensive process. Unless this energy is produced from renewable sources, it means relying on finite fossil fuels, which also generates greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to climate change.
Waste to energy plants could be a solution to this issue, but are not common in the USA.
Although recycling generally consumes less energy than sourcing and producing new materials, it’s better to avoid this energy use at all, for example by reducing our consumption.
Properly recycling everything from plastic to silicon does not generally cause pollution, and eliminates the soil, air, and water pollution caused by other forms of waste disposal. However, if the recycling process is not managed properly, it can contaminate the environment in a range of ways.
Electronics, for example, are sometimes sent to developing countries for recycling, where non-recyclable components may be thrown out, polluting land and waterways if that country doesn’t have strong regulations in place to prevent this.
Likewise, if plastics are not processed properly, they can release VOCs, volatile organic compounds, when they melt, which pose a risk to both human health and the environment. This can be damaging to human health, as well as pollute the local environment, threatening plants and animals.
Along with environmental risks, there can also be safety risks for workers if facilities are not properly managed. For example, If facilities don’t take proper safety precautions, workers may be exposed to toxic components when they hand-sort trash or handle recyclable materials.
Recycling is actually expensive
Recycling is an expensive process, and this is even more true of the initial costs required to set up recycling programs and infrastructure in the first place.
Import bans from China and other countries have also made recycling less economically viable. Just a few years ago, local governments across the US could make money selling recyclable materials.
These sums were generally modest – not a substantial revenue stream, but enough to make it worthwhile for sanitation departments to recycle all kinds of materials. However, now the situation has completely reversed, with towns needing to pay huge sums of money to run their recycling programs.
The US’ dependence on exporting recyclables for so many years meant that, unlike some European countries for example, we never developed extensive recycling infrastructure, exacerbating these issues.
The comparative cost of recycling also depends on other waste disposal options and how expensive they are. For example, in the US it’s relatively easy and affordable to find space for landfills, making recycling programs a less attractive option.
This cost-benefit ratio relationship means some materials are more difficult to recycle than others, and makes the future of recycling uncertain. Around 100 towns have already suspended their curbside recycling programs.
The real question is how long will cash-strapped local authorities sponsor our addiction to disposable materials?
How can we fix the recycling problem?
One solution that would address some of the issues associated with recycling in the US would be to invest in recycling systems and infrastructure. This would make the process more efficient and cost-effective, making it more viable for local authorities to sponsor local recycling programs.
In turn, this would reduce our reliance on exporting our recyclable materials, giving us more control over how much of our waste is actually recycled and under what conditions, and avoid dumping our waste problems on other countries.
This investment would also need to be matched by a commitment by authorities to sponsor recycling programs, as even with better infrastructure these processes are still costly.
Encouraging businesses to use recycled materials in their products would also help to expand the domestic market and make recycling more economically viable, though it’s unlikely to cover all costs.
Legislation to restrict or eliminate landfill could also be part of the solution. By making it more expensive to send our trash to landfill, this would make recycling comparatively more affordable.
Simply put, as things stand we make it too easy to send waste to landfill, passing the cost on to the environment instead.
A more radical approach could be to pass the cost of recycling disposable materials on to the companies that produce them, such as by requiring brands to pay a deposit or penalty for selling products in certain types of packing or containers. This would ultimately pass the cost on to the consumer, as manufacturers would undoubtedly put their prices up accordingly.
However, it would also encourage both brands and their customers to explore other options, including truly zero-waste solutions.
Although these steps can help to make recycling more efficient and cost-effective, a big part of the solution should also be pursuing alternatives in order to reduce our reliance on recycling.
Viable alternatives to recycling
While recycling undoubtedly has its place in both waste management and living an eco-friendly lifestyle, it’s not the end of the story. In fact, recycling should arguably be seen as a last resort after you’ve tried other approaches to dealing with and eliminating waste.
A zero-waste approach can go a long way to minimize our impact on the environment. There are a range of ways to achieve a zero-waste lifestyle, such as:
- Only buy products in reusable containers, and get refills of everything from grains to shampoo
- Compost your organic waste
- Look for zero-waste products such as toothpaste, deodorant and even toilet paper
- Get creative and reuse, repurpose, and upcycle whenever possible
- Buy second-hand clothing and accessories rather than new items
Going completely zero-waste can be a challenge, especially at first. However, avoiding single-use plastics with reusable bottles, coffee cups, and shopping bags can be a good start.
Opt for quality over quantity
Another powerful way to reduce both our rate of consumption and the amount of waste we produce is by buying quality products.
Society has become geared to cheap, disposable products. Much of what we buy today, from clothing and electronics to single-use plastics, is only built to be used for a short period of time before it breaks, wears out, or stops working.
On the surface this doesn’t matter, as we can easily buy a replacement for a nominal cost. However, the cost is passed on to the environment, through the additional drain on resources and energy needed to manufacture new items, not to mention the waste that is produced.
In contrast, when we buy good-quality items that last a long time, they don’t need to be replaced so often, so we throw away less. Additionally, less energy and resources need to be used to produce the replacement items we buy.
We can even go a step further, and try to cut down on the amount of stuff we buy entirely. It’s important to buy quality-made products, but in some cases we can avoid buying anything at all by adopting a more minimalist approach.
Repair rather than throw away
All too often, we throw away items that could be as good as new with a little TLC. Your toaster breaks, and instead of taking it to the repair shop you jump online to buy a new one.
Likewise, the heel comes off your favorite pair of boots (an easy fix) and you buy a new pair, or rather than mending a ripped seam in that near-new sweater you get a new one.
The low cost and easy availability of all kinds of consumer items is largely to blame for this: it’s often quicker and even cheaper to buy a replacement than to have it repaired (or fix it yourself).
However, the cost to the earth is immense: every new product we buy takes energy and materials to make, and probably produces pollution in the process. What’s more, our old item becomes trash that ends up in landfill, or polluting our waterways.
In contrast, repairing things typically involves minimal use of energy and resources, making this a huge net gain for the environment.
Should we skip recycling?
The short answer to this question is no: we shouldn’t ditch recycling entirely. Recycling can be an effective way to deal with trash, and can form a vital part of a multifaceted approach to waste management and looking after the environment more generally.
However, over-reliance and particularly using recycling as an excuse not to pursue other tactics is highly problematic, especially over the long term.
Arguably, we should see recycling as a short-term solution while we restructure how society functions, from production to consumer habits, in order to slash the amount of waste we produce, or, better still, eliminate it entirely.
Check out our guides to recycling difficult items like cork and razor blades, and learn more about going zero-waste.