It’s Time to Rethink Recycling

Our global recycling system is broken. Where do we go from here?

Of all the critical environmental work we need to do, whether it’s preventing climate chaos, nuclear contamination, mass extinction, or some other horror, rethinking recycling is often placed at the bottom of the list, next to protecting Earth from rogue asteroids. One reason we don’t rate recycling very high is because we think we have it solved — a green bin for yard waste, a blue one for recyclables, a gray one for trash, red for glass.

Photo of paper recycling
We need a treaty like the Paris Climate Accord geared towards tackling the recycling question, as well as stronger legislation, more government funding, and better public education. Photo of paper recycling by W. Eugene Barnett, Jr / US Air Force.

But the reality is a bit more complicated than that. The recycling system is broken, and its repair should be a global priority.

Matweb lists over 80,000 grades of plastic, each one created from 70 base polymers for a specific use. On a consumer level, an industry group called Quality Products names six basic types and a seventh miscellaneous category that includes fiberglass and nylon. Where I live, the city buries it all.

Why not put limits on the types of plastics available to consumers, as imagined by Ida Auken, a member of the Denmark Parliament? ‘“Refuse, reuse, reduce, recycle,”’ she writes, painting a picture of an idealized world of 2030, “is the new way of looking at products: if you don’t need it, you refuse; if you buy it, you will use it again and again; and in the end, you recycle it. All packaging is made from three types of plastic, or other new materials, so recycling is easier these days.”

Several entrepreneurs and nonprofits have realized an opportunity here and are turning ocean plastic into jewelry, clothing, shoes, and whatnot, but where will that stuff end up? Better yet, plastic-free shops like Precycle and No Tox Life limit packaging by selling everything in bulk or molded forms — shampoo in bars rather than bottles, toothpaste in tablets, not plastic tubes. But plastics, according to the EPA, comprise less than 15 percent of the consumer waste stream, the rest being paper, glass, metal and hundreds of cast offs from tires to toys. These figures don’t include the 8.7 million tons going to yard trimmings and kitchen scraps, only a fraction of which makes it to compost bins. A quiz from Project Drawdown lists cutting back food waste as the third most important step society could make toward lowering its carbon footprint (behind managing refrigeration chemicals and installing on-shore wind turbines).

And, by the way, do you know about glass? Of course, all the jars and beer bottles get washed and refilled, right? Rarely anymore. If they’re recycled at all, they’re mostly crushed into cullet, melted down, then turned back into different containers, or “downcycled” into road fill.

I tried to make a diagram of what a truly enlightened recycling effort would entail and was quickly overwhelmed. Americans throw away more than four pounds of trash per person per day, says the EPA, and our dumpsites are filling up and leaching into the groundwater. Who’s responsible for this mess — extractors, manufacturers, retailers, consumers, landfills, governments? As far as I can tell, there’s little accountability at any level. Even the National Waste & Recycling Association claims that its members recycle only 34 percent of our waste. Globally, the amount of trash produced is growing faster than the rate of urbanization, according to a 2015 World Bank report. By 2025, the organization estimates that 1.4 billion more people will live in cities worldwide. Garbage strike, anyone?

And did I mention industrial recycling? The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers boasts that 95 percent of the 12 million cars junked each year in the US is recycled. So what would happen if the US banned individual gasoline cars, as Norway and seven other countries aim to do by 2030? That manageable 12 million would go astronomical, that’s what. There are over 287 million registered vehicles in the United States alone, most of which are passenger vehicles. Though a gas car ban may be necessary, how do we recycle billions of tons of used steel, rubber, vinyl, shatterproof glass, synthetic rubber, high density polyethylene, grease, oil, lead batteries, and residues of gas and diesel (quite a bit of the latter from trash trucks, ironically)? How much can be turned into mag-trains, e-buses, and hydrogen-powered Ubers?

And what about other industries, such as electronics, guns, concrete, and the granddaddy of them all, big oil? As far back as 2006, Discover Magazine ran an article titled, “Anything Into Oil” reporting that a company called Changing World Technologies could convert any waste product containing oil to its basic hydrocarbons, which could be distilled into diesel and gasoline, or, by steam processing, turned into hydrogen. Hydrogen, of course, is the Holy Grail of renewable, non-polluting fuels whose end product is water and oxygen. But Changing World Technologies got off to a rough start. The converted oil cost $80 a barrel, not $15 as originally projected. The company never quite recovered and in 2013 was acquired by another company specializing in green landfills. (Many environmental groups have also expressed concern about waste-to-energy schemes that essentially promote continued use of single-use plastics and other hydrocarbon-based products.)

Your ancient cell phone might be tradable for cash at EcoATM machines, but I’ve never seen these machines. Best Buy and other retailers will take back your abused laptop for free, and some companies, like Dell, have introduced “closed loop recycling” to harvest old components, but according to experts, most e-waste, along with its lead, mercury, arsenic, and flame retardants, is dumped or incinerated, leading to contamination. Speaking of mercury, if you’re still using Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs, the EPA tells you what to do if you break one. It does not tell you where all the crumbs end up.

Frankly, I’m tired of fad marketing, built-in obsolescence, and forever chemicals (think Teflon). One recycling success might seem to be old ships, which are cut up in Bangladesh for the scrap market, but the work is dangerous and toxic.The industry needs higher standards and hefty regulation like everything else.

So where do we go from here? Recycling must be globally coordinated. We need a treaty like the Paris Climate Accord geared towards tackling the recycling question, as well as stronger legislation, more government funding, and better public education.

First stop, containers. In Japan, the entire town of Kamikatsu is waste free and sorts its garbage into 34 separate categories. Japan also requires appliance manufacturers to finance the recycling of their products, similar to Europe’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive and extended producer responsibility laws. The United States is the largest waste appliance producer in the world; however, there is still no federal law requiring appliance recycling. Landfills need to be seen as the absolute last resort and reserved for hazardous waste. How can that be better regulated, I wonder, and how many cleaning products and noxious chemicals do we need? How much of anything do we need, really? Can we ever put a stop to catalogues full of unnecessary stuff like avocado slicers and heated weed eliminators? Do they make us that happy? Can our economy survive if we get rid of them? More to the point, can our environment survive if we don’t?

Still, we don’t need to melt everything down to basic elements. Some things can be cleaned up, repaired, upgraded, or repurposed. Rare book and vintage clothing stores may provide an attractive alternative to garage sales, but what about a national campaign to clear out our garages to help clothe (and perhaps shelter) the poor and displaced? And can a farm be recycled? Could unemployed or migrant families take over abandoned homesteads and make them productive again?

Given the complexities of running a national, not to mention worldwide, recycling program, I wonder if we should call in the logistics experts, the clever folks involved in getting avocado slicers from sweatshops in Shanghai to McMansions in the Los Angeles burbs. If the shipping business has the track record, expertise, and software to consummate our consumerism, then it should be able to reroute our flotsam and jetsam. TerraCycle, a New Jersey startup that specializes in collecting nonrecyclables and transforming them into new items, has taken a small step in this direction, but it’s costly and has been accused of “greenwashing,” spawning products that are themselves not recyclable.

We also need to come up with a comprehensive system of available raw materials. Not just a patchwork of used lumber companies and nonprofits that take odds and ends from construction, but an international resources network, with warehouses, searchable databases and non-polluting transport for everything from lithium to electricity — an in the raw. That leaves us with nuclear waste. Isn’t there energy in the spent fuel rods we’ve created that could be used safely as a source of heat needed somewhere? Scientists at Stanford University say there is. Naturally, this research doesn’t touch on the many environmental, health, and safety concerns associated with relying on nuclear energy in the first place.

The goal can’t be to stop innovation, of course, as if every idea were already here, and all we needed was to endlessly recycle things. Wouldn’t we be better served with less duplication and bling, more products from stone and fiber, and more food without cruelty, poison, and waste, all for the good of humankind and the future of life on the planet?

In our ignorance, delayism, greed, and lack of global standards and coordination, we stand to lose everything, everywhere, permanently if we don’t refuse, reduce, reuse and recycle — and, I would add, decarbonize, decontaminate, and regenerate — like maniacs. If you’re not convinced, read David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth, in which the feted author concludes, “…no matter how well-informed you are, you are surely not alarmed enough.” If this sounds like a war footing, maybe it is. And maybe it’s just what we need to put recycling up higher on our list of critical environmental work.

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