Is recycling a scam?


Google 'recycling' and what you get is a series of articles quoting scary statistics about the amount of waste we generate every year, tips for more effective recycling and calls to join the 'green revolution'. Combine recycling with almost every other search term you can think of ('recycling statistics', 'recycling facts') and you still get pretty much the same picture.

There is, however, a unique combination that will yield quite different results: 'recycling costs'.

Recycling is expensive. Even without taking into account the demands it places on people's time (a valuable resource), I think it is fair to say that most recycling programmes are loss making operations. While I could go on and on naming one local authority after another, the fact that private recycling operations are nowhere to be seen - with very few exceptions - neatly settles the argument.

When you read about a recycling programme 'paying for itself', what you see in effect is a covert tax on residents. When you see a recycling programme losing money, what you are witnessing is a public subsidy to the tree-hugger in all of us.

All the while, and completely discounting current welfare ('financial') considerations, it is at best debatable that recycling lives up to its purported raison d'etre - saving the planet. The environmental costs of recycling may well be far in excess of simply dumping waste. Extra trucks are needed on the road to collect the recycled bins, pumping tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. For many materials, the environmental cost of the energy used in recycling them is more than the environmental cost of simply tapping on nature's reserve to replace them.

Since the consumption of virgin materials or energy is not priced at marginal social cost, it is impossible to say with certainty whether a specific recycling operation is good for the environment simply by looking at the profit and loss account. For most materials, however, the available evidence seem to suggest that recycling is like shooting ourselves in the foot, all the while feeling we are doing the planet a great service.

Addendum: While looking at recycling, I came across this Wired article about GPI Atlantic's costing of the recycling programme in Nova Scotia. The headline finding was that Nova Scotia saved 'anywhere from $25 million to $125 million a year'. Here's more:

Simply adding up the costs of recycling and the revenue generated from sales of recycled materials would show that the program cost the province $18 million a year more than just throwing trash into landfills.

To get an accurate picture of the real value of Nova Scotia's recycling and composting program, the report considered a number of factors, including [...] the direct and indirect value generated from new employment in the recycling sector.


I assume that the recycling programme hired only chronically unempoyed, or even better, unemployable people - and I hereby petition the government to extend this beneficial policy and hire loads more in loss making public enterprises at subsidised wages. The direct and indirect value generated from employment of this type is surely worth it.



by datacharmer | Wednesday, May 16, 2007
  , , | | Is recycling a scam? @bluematterblogtwitter

16 comments:

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Most environmental questions seem to me to be primarily questions of discount rate and inter-generational altruism. Presumably if we totally screw up the planet and end the human race that will have a very large negative pay-off, albeit to our descendants. So if you factor that in with a low discount rate then all sorts of chronically loss-making activities suddenly start looking worthwhile due to massive positive externalities. Discount a bit more and/or stop caring about descendants and these activities don't look worth doing.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    I think that at the speed of "progress",and our daily dependence on the technological world, the overstocking of food supplies, our romantic view of the wild world through documentaries,and just an enourmous amount of ignorance all over ,is enough to say that in general we do not respect the environment. Take the tuna fishing factory ships and all that is involved in the making of a can of the one listed above.What do we do when we cannot sell that can of tuna? Or at supermarkets especially the cereal sections ,where it is supposed to be intended for the health of our children ,is nothing more than colorants and chemicals all for the sake of your children. Bad nutrition also is part of the human being forming part the ecosystem and the way we interact. Consumer society is also a big problem ,I think that at the end we resemble goats eating pasture , the more we, buy the more we destroy our beloved earth. I can cite a whole bunch of cases ,and I will be missing lots of important points ,but the best thing we can teach our children is common sense.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    I feel that recycling, regardless of the cost, is still a good cause to save a few natural resources. One thing that needs to be done however is having the cities give up the funds to do it and to stop the recent trend of taxing the residents. Many citizens can not easily afford to pay $35-$50 every quarter for a city mandatory recycling ordinance. I know that I buy mostly non-recycled products because of a fixed income and do so even more after having to pay out the $50 bucks.

  4. Anonymous Says:

    I have been saying that recycling is a scam for a while. My theory is that chemical companies promote it to have a market for their products. It takes many caustic chemicals to break down, bleach and melt a soda can or bottle, for instance. These chemicals are not "greenly" produced or disposed of. I also have read that each product must be "downgraded" each time it is recycled, ie; cannot be made into the same thing again. This means that ultimately the same mass ends up in a landfill, but consumes much more energy and chemicals on the way. A book titled "Cradle to Cradle" explains an alternative to recycling.

  5. Anonymous Says:

    Wow, a common sense piece followed by posts from people who want to feel morally superior at the expense of others (ie, taxpayers.) If recycling wasn't expensive, it wouldn't cost more than regular garbage pick-up (which it does.) I think that "inter-generational altruists" (read: do-gooders) should pay for recycling if it makes them feel like good little saviors of mother earth. But like the sycophants they often are, they want to guilt everyone to pay for the scam. Case in point, Mr. Fixed Income above wants "the cities" to pay for recycling. Who does he think "the cities" are? They are other taxpayers, most of whom don't realize they are getting fleeced so that politically connected contractors get the "$green$" if you will. At least that's how it works here in Chicago/Illinois, land of Lincoln and political corruption. I think we are going to have enough politicians in jail soon to get our own prison wing. I hope you all eventually can see the emperor's new clothes for what they aren't before "the cities" are all bankrupt along with the rest of the country.

  6. Anonymous Says:

    "Recycling Saves Energy:
    It typically takes less energy to make products from recycled materials than from virgin materials. For example, making an aluminum can from recycled aluminum saves 95% of the energy needed to make a can from virgin aluminum. The EPA reported that in 2000, recycling resulted in an annual energy savings of at least 660 trillion BTUs, which equals the amount of energy used in 6 million households annually. In 2005, recycling is conservatively projected to save 900 trillion BTUs, equal to the annual energy use of 9 million households."
    According to your argument someone would have to do a lot of driving to make recycling counter productive.

  7. TravDawg Says:

    This is to "anonymous" who said:

    "Wow, a common sense piece followed by posts from people who want to feel morally superior at the expense of others (ie, taxpayers.)"

    I can see this comment coming from me if I were raised in a city, I wouldn't give a shit about recycling if this were the case.

    "Cities are nothing less than over grown prisons that shut out the world and all its beauties."
    -John Clare-

    But, for the rest of us who want the option of living or traveling to the countryside, recycling is a must. I don't want to see your "garbage" that could have easily been recycled if you put forth the effort. The alternative to recycling is changing our industry paradigm. Unless Coca Cola stops producing and we stop buying 584,000,000,000 (billion) cans, bottles and plastic two liters each and EVERY year we will never win. And this is just Coca Cola, there are hundreds of billions from Pepsi, and figures in the Trillions of single use cans and bottles produced by the entire industry. This is why we must recycle! If recycling weren't in place all this crap would end up in landfills taking 500+ years to decompose and at the same time harming our water system. But besides the hippie point of view what about the material loss. Why would you want to mine for aluminum when trillions of used cans would do just fine. It just doesn't make any sense. If I were the owner of a soda company I would set up recycling programs all over this country and RAKE in the profit from not having to pay for virgin aluminum.

    Of course, Illinois is not part of the 11 states that have a recycling redemption value. This really hinders the idea of recycling in my opinion, they tax you even though you haven't even drinkin a dam soda or beer! That would absolutely SUCK! Let me explain whats up in the states who don't have taxes without representation (at least in regards for recycling). In California, Oregon, Iowa, Connecticut, Vermont, Massachusetts, Maine, New York, Delaware, Hawaii, and Michigan when you buy can soda or beer they charge you 5 or so cents for each bottle/can. You then take the can/bottle to the local recycling facility and collect your money back! It's a great system that only "taxes" those who what to partake in buying aluminum cans and plastic bottles. So I guess you are right, it all does depend on the shitting politicians at the top. Most are unfortunately in the pockets of these large corporations so I guess it's up to us to vote them out once we get wind of this.

    The best advice to all is never stop learning and teaching yourself. For when we stop learning about ourselves, our happiness, and our surrounds we die.

    Recycle and you get this:

    http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_bfd1dFDmRWA/SIAJM4zWi2I/AAAAAAAAAGU/6e15hZn5sdA/s400/snow%2Bcovered%2Bmountain.jpg


    Don't recycle and it turns into this:

    http://webpages.csus.edu/~ss687/MIS%20101/landfill.jpg

  8. Anonymous Says:

    Wow, this article and the comments have been an interesting read! As someone who lives in the city, I try to keep up with my recycling duties but it can be quite difficult. Many plastics can't be recycled in my neighbourhood and by simply placing a different plastic with the rest of my recyclable items, it won't get collected. Quite infuriating having a two week build-up, and smelly too! It does suck you don't get rewarded for it either, sorting through the trash and seperating it is a job in itself! I wish government schemes and the people helping run it had as much passion as some private recycle companies do. For instance, I had loads of mobile phones lying around which I sold to a company called Mobile Phone Xchange who recycle them and I got money for it in return! There are loads of schemes for appliances like this which make it easy to recycle and you get a reward. Governments should take notice and offer more incentives for recycling instead of making it such a chore. I care about the planet I live on, and I want to make a difference, but when there is so much negativity surrounding it I sometimes wonder why bother...

  9. Anonymous Says:

    This article and the subsequent comments have been a real eye-opener. It's interesting to see all the different opinions people have on recycling. I definitely feel like I should do more research and reading on the matter.

  10. Anonymous Says:

    To make matters worse local authorities are handing out 30 YEAR waste management contracts worth HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF POUNDS to well connected "private" enterprises across the UK (e.g. www.donarbon.com), so basically taxpayers will be on the hook for this stuff for generations to come, without the public having any serious debate or cost/benefit analysis. Meanwhile state owned TV (especially children's TV CBBC) and schools via the centrally managed national curriculum continually spews out propaganda espousing the alleged benefits of recycling to kids. All funded by state extortion and violence. It's absolutely disgraceful.

  11. Anonymous Says:

    It is actually quite pathetic to read the writings of educated people with no actual clue. No thoughts other than their own self-serving agenda about how caring for the earth is a waste of fiscal resources and time. People who embody this type of mentality are truly a real waste themselves. One day you will wake up and realize that the world is moving around you and that your backwards ideals are what is left of an out dated westernized dream that simply was never actualized.

    It really is a shame that you can not do your own small part. Do not worry however, the rest of the world will provide a sustainable lifestyle for your children, where you clearly are unable to do so. Yet another of your failings as a human being.

    Business can be an effective tool that perpetuates the "green revolution" it should never have dominion over it.

    Give your head a shake, because if mother nature had hands, she would use them to slap you in the face.

  12. Anonymous Says:

    It is actually quite pathetic to read the writings of educated people with no actual clue. No thoughts other than their own self-serving agenda about how caring for the earth is a waste of fiscal resources and time. People who embody this type of mentality are truly a real waste themselves. One day you will wake up and realize that the world is moving around you and that your backwards ideals are what is left of an out dated westernized dream that simply was never actualized.

    It really is a shame that you can not do your own small part. Do not worry however, the rest of the world will provide a sustainable lifestyle for your children, where you clearly are unable to do so. Yet another of your failings as a human being.

    Business can be an effective tool that perpetuates the "green revolution" it should never have dominion over it.

    Give your head a shake, because if mother nature had hands, she would use them to slap you in the face.

  13. Anonymous Says:

    It is actually quite pathetic to read the writings of educated people with no actual clue. No thoughts other than their own self-serving agenda about how caring for the earth is a waste of fiscal resources and time. People who embody this type of mentality are truly a real waste themselves. One day you will wake up and realize that the world is moving around you and that your backwards ideals are what is left of an out dated westernized dream that simply was never actualized.

    It really is a shame that you can not do your own small part. Do not worry however, the rest of the world will provide a sustainable lifestyle for your children, where you clearly are unable to do so. Yet another of your failings as a human being.

    Business can be an effective tool that perpetuates the "green revolution" it should never have dominion over it.

    Give your head a shake, because if mother nature had hands, she would use them to slap you in the face.

  14. Anonymous Says:

    Yes, please do you part. Just understand what your part is.
    When you place aluminum at the sidewalk and it's picked up by the recyclers and sent to a reuser (eg alcoa), it saves the reuser (eg alcoa) the cost of digging up bauxite and purifying it. Someone said this was a savings of 95%.
    All well and good, but then who does this benefit? I'm guessing that the benefit is primarily to the reuser as what's commonly called profit.
    Does this benefit trickle down to the being who first used and then recycled? Is there some kind of cost reduction for that worker?
    No. Just the sincere feeling that they've made a beautiful "mountain" instead of a landfill.
    Or for those who still don't get it, it costs less for the companies to mine the streets instead of the ground, forests, and shores to get the wanted bauxite, cellulose and silicon dioxide. Oh, and they get it substantially purer as well. And you get to feel good for lining their pockets.

  15. Anonymous Says:

    I think a bit of time has elapsed from when this article was written. Before going into the merits of recycling itself, one should first put recycling within the right context of resource management options for the undoubtedly wasteful societies we live in. Recycling is not limited to plastic and cans either. Though recycling behaviour is stereotypically associated with these materials its only a small part of the picture, the market is much bigger. Waste is a resource in itself and economies of scale have and will continue to tip in favour of so called 'greener' technologies vs landfill. Before dismissing it as feel good factor or greenwash, consider:

    - that you paid to buy something in the first place so simply landfilling it is throwing away some monetary value. As someone pointed out in the comments, cans are cleaner than ore, while press print on virgin stock would be more expensive as well.

    - in places like the UK or generally land can be limited/too costly/too far to invest in new landfills (that's why there are landfill tax drivers as well). Overcoming these factors and building an alternative viable technology plant employs more people than a landfill as well so there's that benefit (and I can safely say.. the people you would need are highly employable). Some local authority models have managed to drive down the cost of refuse collection per household very significantly not simply having recycling 'pay for itself'. The truth here is not whether recycling is a scam or a hero, but how to best deal with the tonnes of waste on your lap.

    - recycling is not the preferred option in the waste hierarchy, i.e. prevention and reuse are preferred because they reduce the problem in the first place. Suffice to say in the UK as an example, 1 bag of perfectly edible food is thrown away out of every 3 purchased.

    - I am not sure what you mean about 'private recycling operations are nowhere to be seen'. That depends on what what kind of 'waste' you would be dealing with. 'Waste' treatment and even collection operations are privately run very widely and source all kinds of waste streams. The infrastructure involved inevitably comes from private industry. Local authorities may offer an in-house collection to domestic households and businesses (the latter at a charge) but even in those cases it's very often private contractors beyond collection and bulking.

    Rather than saying 'saving the planet' I think the reusing or recycling element fits perfectly well with 'resource scarcity' rather. China is not stockpiling our shit for nothing. In times where oil prices go up and the prices of virgin/ precious metals with them, with the right technology re-extracting metals from appliances etc. will be much cheaper.. what we would pay for it or how we would get it back is another matter.

    One very good example of late is the Savoy hotels/restaurants in London. They have invested in a small on site energy recovery facility to treat all their food waste. Aside avoiding the cost of transporting and landfilling it they're recovering the energy and feeding the national grid. Their only wastes remaining are now the very problematic items to deal with such as wires as they recycle pretty much everything else. It gives them competitive operational advantage, saves space and drives down costs for electricity in the longer term. Surely their patrons don't really give a damn.

  16. Anonymous Says:

    I think a bit of time has elapsed from when this article was written. Before going into the merits of recycling itself, one should first put recycling within the right context of resource management options for the undoubtedly wasteful societies we live in. Recycling is not limited to plastic and cans either. Though recycling behaviour is stereotypically associated with these materials its only a small part of the picture, the market is much bigger. Waste is a resource in itself and economies of scale have and will continue to tip in favour of so called 'greener' technologies vs landfill. Before dismissing it as feel good factor or greenwash, consider:

    - that you paid to buy something in the first place so simply landfilling it is throwing away some monetary value. As someone pointed out in the comments, cans are cleaner than ore, while press print on virgin stock would be more expensive as well.

    - in places like the UK or generally land can be limited/too costly/too far to invest in new landfills (that's why there are landfill tax drivers as well). Overcoming these factors and building an alternative viable technology plant employs more people than a landfill as well so there's that benefit (and I can safely say.. the people you would need are highly employable). Some local authority models have managed to drive down the cost of refuse collection per household very significantly not simply having recycling 'pay for itself'. The truth here is not whether recycling is a scam or a hero, but how to best deal with the tonnes of waste on your lap.

    - recycling is not the preferred option in the waste hierarchy, i.e. prevention and reuse are preferred because they reduce the problem in the first place. Suffice to say in the UK as an example, 1 bag of perfectly edible food is thrown away out of every 3 purchased.

    - I am not sure what you mean about 'private recycling operations are nowhere to be seen'. That depends on what what kind of 'waste' you would be dealing with. 'Waste' treatment and even collection operations are privately run very widely and source all kinds of waste streams. The infrastructure involved inevitably comes from private industry. Local authorities may offer an in-house collection to domestic households and businesses (the latter at a charge) but even in those cases it's very often private contractors beyond collection and bulking.


    Rather than saying 'saving the planet' I think the reusing or recycling element fits perfectly well with 'resource scarcity' rather. China is not stockpiling our shit for nothing. In times where oil prices go up and the prices of virgin/ precious metals with them, with the right technology re-extracting metals from appliances etc. will be much cheaper.. what we would pay for it or how we would get it back is another matter.

    One very good example of late is the Savoy hotels/restaurants in London. They have invested in a small on site energy recovery facility to treat all their food waste. Aside avoiding the cost of transporting and landfilling it they're recovering the energy and feeding the national grid. Their only wastes remaining are now the very problematic items to deal with such as wires as they recycle pretty much everything else. It gives them competitive operational advantage, saves space and drives down costs for electricity in the longer term. Surely their patrons don't really give a damn.