For as long as I can remember, recycling has been the “right” thing to do. One of my first chores growing up was taking the recyling to the curb every Sunday. In fact, I recall it being a bit of a culture war topic. Maybe it still is? Anyway, it turns out that recycling might not have been such a good idea. It appears that recyling fever started as a response to (media-driven?) concerns about landfills overfilling in the 80s and 90s. With hindsight, this wasn’t much of a problem. Major cities had ineffective waste management systems, and they fixed them. In terms of the amount of usable empty space, there’s more than enough room for our trash for the foreseeable future. It’s also recently emerged that oil producers were partially responsible for this narrative. They recognized that concern about single-use plastics might hurt demand for their products. Convincing the public that recycling would work was their solution, regardless of their own doubts about its effectiveness.
From a practical perspective, there are a bunch of problems with recycling. Many recyclables don’t actually recycle well, especially when they are contaminated with food waste or mixed with other materials. Sorting mixed recyclables is difficult to do, let alone do cost-effectively. For a while, China was consuming large amounts of raw recycled material from the U.S., propping up the recycling market. This was economically sustainable because there were many bulk carriers making the reverse trip with empty holds. Then, in 2018, they stopped importing. Currently, most of our “recycling” doesn’t end up being recycled.
The environmental issue I actually care about is climate change. It sure seems like transporting recycled materials across the ocean only to convert them back into usable goods and ship them back the other way is a net negative in terms of emissions. So, I should probably be happy about China’s import ban. Is burning recycling even worse? Sending it to Malaysia: probably about the same. In the abstract, I’d love to learn whether making a new plastic bottle from scratch is more emissions friendly than making a recycled one.
A related area where local governments may be optimizing for the wrong thing is paper and plastic bags. Plastic bag bans are a recent development in cities like New York, enacted presumably because paper is more recyclable. This doesn’t seem like it might increase emissions. The energy density of making and recycling paper is higher than plastic (the number 4x floats around the internet, although I can’t find a citation I trust). If you’re concerned about emissions, you should probably just use plastic bags and throw them away carefully. There are other downsides to plastic bags, like the way they end up in the water, around animals necks, etc. Of course, a reusable bag is the best choice here.
This feels like a microcosm of many large-scale issues as viewed from the perspective of the individual. What should I do personally? I think I’ve made a pretty clear intellectual case to myself that reycling is at best net-neutral, and has a decent chance of being net-negative. And yet, the habit of throwing things into the recycling bin is hard to change. That habit might have two components. First, the habit itself: something like behavioral muscle memory. The other part might be best characterized as “following the herd”. I’ve been taught that recycling is something that “normal” or “reasonable” people do. As a social animal, that’s a difficult learning to ignore. Perhaps I lack sufficient conviction in my beliefs to act on them? I think that I should just be throwing everything in the trash, but I don’t have a clear idea of how much better that is than recycling. Without overwhelming evidence, perhaps defaulting to the status quo is the most logical choice.
I think I mainly wrote this as an experiment to see whether talking about it “out loud” it will influence my behavior.