(Bloomberg) -- Is recycling worth it? When it took off four decades ago, recycling was seen as one of the environmental movement’s great successes. It morphed into a gigantic global trade, with freighters that carried China’s exports abroad returning home with half the planet’s scrap paper and plastic stuffed into their otherwise-empty containers. Then China changed its mind, leaving cities and towns around the world stuck with growing piles of waste. That’s forced them to reconsider the cost of being green.
Recycling markets were upended in 2017 when China, as part of an anti-pollution crackdown, announced it would stop importing most used plastic and paper. One reason: Too many imported recyclables were contaminated, sometimes with hazardous substances like lead and mercury. The decision sent prices of scrap plastic and recovered paper tumbling, creating a crisis for municipalities that had relied such sales to subsidize curbside recycling. In the U.S., the average price of used corrugated cardboard fell 36 percent. It hasn’t been easy to find other takers for used plastic, since lower oil prices have made virgin plastic cheaper than recycled. While other nations like India and Vietnam have been importing more recyclables, they don’t come close to handling the amount China once did. And few industrial nations have enough capacity to recycle all the material on their own. Some communities are running out of room to store the mounting stockpiles and have stopped collecting plastic, paper products or glass. Some places in Australia and Canada have sent existing piles to landfills or burned them. At the same time, under pressure from consumers, several well-known companies have pledged to use more recycled and biodegradable goods. In 2018 companies including Coca-Cola, Unilever and Walmart said they’ll aim to use packaging that is 100 percent reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.
During both world wars, metals were recycled for use in weapons and vehicles; paper was collected to preserve trees for construction and shipping. After that, most nations’ waste was sent to incinerators that belched smoke or landfills that could leach toxins into ground water. In the U.S., the passage of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act in the early 1970s meant that communities had to scramble to find other solutions; many began to offer recycling programs as a way to cut down on garbage. China’s recycling trade took off in the 1990s as its exports of goods such as textiles and toys rose sharply. Its manufacturers were hungry for plastics and metals to refashion into new products, and used paper to make cardboard boxes to pack them up. Recycling collectors in the rest of the world often found it more economical to sell to this market than to local processing plants. European countries began to shift some of the burden in the mid-1990s by setting rules that required manufacturers of goods ranging from cardboard boxes to mattresses to handle the recycling themselves.
Recycling is more expensive than tossing items into the trash. In 2016, it cost New York City $18 per ton more to collect and process recyclables than to dispose of regular refuse. Improper recycling adds to the cost. Just one pizza box in a cardboard recycling pile can ruin the whole batch, since oils in it can’t be separated from the paper fiber. Recycling plastics and electronics can be dangerous, exposing workers to serious health risks. And there are natural limits. Paper can only be recycled five to seven times before the cellulose fibers become too short to be reused; most clear plastic bottles can’t be turned into new bottles. Yet recycling does save energy. Making soda cans from recycled aluminum requires 95 percent less energy than mining and using raw ore. Recycling also helps keep toxic materials out of landfills. The upheaval that followed China’s decision prompted calls for bans and fees to discourage plastic use; localities started to pass on their higher recycling costs to homeowners and businesses. Many areas have announced plans to build new recycling plants; public-private partnerships, bankrolled by companies that have made recycling pledges, are offering to support the effort with low-cost loans. Environmentalists still encourage recycling, but they also offer other solutions: Buy less stuff in the first place and look for products that last.
The Reference Shelf
- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency answers recycling questions. (No sewing needles, please.)
- In 2007, the New York Times profiled Zhang Yin, the “Queen of Trash” and how she built her scrap paper fortune.
- Bloomberg Businessweek on Unilever’s “feel-good capitalism” and the dangers of electronics recycling at Mexico City workshops.
- Resource Recycling interviewed the designer of the universal recycling symbol of three arrows turned in on one another.
- Bloomberg View columnist Adam Minter has explored recycling at length, including how China’s recycling ban could hurt its own environment and why the market for used clothing is fading.
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