Recycling: Why Better Than Nothing Isn’t Good Enough

There’s a windswept spot overlooking Los Angeles called Puente Hills, where you can stand atop a mountain of trash 500 feet high. The broad plateau at its summit is large enough to hold Dodgers Stadium with plenty of room for parking. Set to close this October, it is the country’s largest active landfill.

Most of the 130 million tons of waste buried for eternity beneath its lumpy slopes could have been recycled.

Puente Hills, then, serves as a perfect symbol of where we are as a nation on the waste and recycling front: an immense geographic feature constructed of largely avoidable waste, built by an American public that makes 7.1 pounds of trash per person every day, yet recycles only about a fourth of that world-leading amount of garbage.[1]

The Environmental Protection Agency tells us that the largest single component of our landfill contnents consists of packaging and containers, which are, at least in theory, 100 percent recyclable. One out of every 100 pounds dumped in U.S. landfills consists of the highly recyclable and highly subsidized type of instant waste we call junk mail.[2]

 For a country so supposedly committed to recycling as its go-to response to waste, America is really quite bad at it. Japan and most European nations run rings around the U.S. on this score.

The question is: Why?

The answer lies not in the same old trash talk that’s been used against recycling for decades: that it’s too costly, or that it can cause as much environmental harm as landfilling, ort that it has become some sort of unreasoned article of green faith rather than grounded in hard science. None of this holds much water, though these arguments have been recycled in Michael Munger’s essay in varying degrees.

Such arguments obscure the real barrier to recycling success: For it to succeed, recycling must be re-positioned as America’s last line of defense against waste, not the leading one. There are far more efficient, profitable, and environmentally beneficial strategies, among them: packaging reduction, life-cycle engineering, and replacement of incentives for wastefulness with ones that hold manufacturers responsible for the waste stream their products create.

Recycling, in short, is better than nothing, but not nearly good enough on its own.


Early in his essay, Prof. Munger summarizes a classic anti-recycling argument: “Recycling is almost always substantially more expensive than disposing in the landfill.”

This is a technically accurate but highly misleading statement.  You could similarly argue that paying to go to the dentist is always more expensive than not going. Or that we sure could have saved on the military if only we had surrendered after Pearl Harbor rather than declaring war. Such comparisons, while literally true, yield absurd conclusions because they are stripped of the proper context.

Of course dumping stuff in a hole (or in a river or ocean) is always cheaper than subjecting materials to the complex industrial process of recycling, but that’s not the right comparison. Recycling economics should be weighed not as the last step in waste disposal, but as the first step in manufacturing. The proper comparison is not landfill vs. recycling, but virgin materials vs. recycled ones. Which is more costly to manufacturers of products?

The answer generally favors recycled materials, as there is enormous demand for recycled metals, paper, and certain types of plastic. Here, both the environmental and economic benefits of recycling are revealed: there are substantial energy and carbon savings that come with the choice of many recycled raw materials over virgin ones. Recycling aluminum cans, for instance, saves a whopping 96 percent of the energy needed to produce aluminum from bauxite ore. Recycling glass jars and bottles saves 21 percent of the energy needed to make new glass, recycling newsprint saves 45 percent, and recycling plastic beverage bottles saves 76 percent (other plastic types differ in the percentages, but the energy savings are there, too).[3]

The reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from recycling mean that supporters who proclaim recycling to be “the right thing to do” can say it based on hard data, not blind faith.

Those energy savings also can translate into lower prices for recycled commodities, although the recycling market is as volatile as they come and, as Munger points out, some raw materials such as glass are just dirt (or in this case, sand) cheap. Still, recycled PET plastic pellets (the material used in soda and water bottles) were selling recently for 22 percent less than virgin pellets.[4] Newly forged aluminum, recently priced at about $2,000 a ton, runs about six times the recycled price. China values our discarded paper, metal, and plastic so much it has helped make scrap our number one overall export by containerized volume.[5] Indeed, China’s first woman billionaire got her start collecting scrap paper in Los Angeles and exporting it in all those otherwise empty cargo containers headed back across the Pacific. One of Zhang Yin’s companies is now America’s largest volume exporter.  Trashed paper, it turns out, is treasure in the right hands.[6]

There is a strong business case for recycling and composting, not withstanding Munger’s example of a comically poor North Carolina yard waste program. Just ask Wal-Mart, which in 2006 launched a program to reduce its waste stream to as close to zero as possible. The company has reported an 80 percent reduction in landfilling in its California operations since then, which it accomplished by monetizing the material it once paid to have hauled away.[7] Food waste is composted and resold in the gardening department. Plastic hangars have been recycled to produce dog beds. Paper and plastic packaging waste is bundled and sold to third-party recyclers. According to the retail giant, the materials that were once a source of considerable expense are now net revenue generators, primarily due to recycling.

But if all this is true, and the old arguments against recycling are incorrect, why aren’t we doing better? Why are we still landfilling 69% of our waste, when we know from other consumer economies – Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands, for example – that’s its possible to recycle at least that much while landfilling far less?  Why are we continuing to erect mountains of garbage filled with perfectly recyclable plastic, paper, cardboard, and metal?

The answer can be summed up in one word: incentives. Our consumer economy is riddled with far more incentives to waste than incentives to conserve and recycle. That’s where recycling falls down and why other strategies must come first.

A perfect example is curbside municipal trash service. Most cities and towns charge homeowners a flat monthly fee for collection, hauling, and dumping of their trash. If there are recycling bins, citizens do the sorting on the honor system. This is an incentive to waste.

But about a fourth of trash collection in America is based on a “pay as you throw” system, in which customers are charged by their trash volume. Big full cans of garbage cost more to haul than little mostly empty ones, and so customers are charged accordingly. In the old system, low-waste homes subsidized high-waste homes, but in pay as you go, everyone pays their own freight. The kicker is that recyclables are not charged by volume. Full or empty, the recycling bin pickup is free. These communities provide consumers with an economic incentive to waste less and recycle more and, as a group, they recycle 30 to 40 percent more than the rest of the country.[8]

Junk mail offers more examples of perversely wasteful incentives we seem incapable of killing. Junk makes up over half our mail, 80 billion pieces of junk weighing about 4 million tons last year. This junk mail is doubly subsidized, first by a much lower postal rate than first-class mail. Then the creators of this unwanted tidal wave of waste get a second subsidy because they foist the cost of dealing with it off on the rest of us – consumers have to pay to have it hauled away.

For recycling to work as a viable waste strategy, these sorts of incentives must be replaced with incentives to conserve, to build an economy that is less disposable and more reusable, and to hold producers of wasteful products financially responsible for their wastefulness. If junk mailers were held responsible for the true cost of their product, which they are currently permitted to externalize, we’d soon see an end to junk mail. And for other products, these incentives would encourage a renaissance of better, more efficient design.

Munger makes a similar recommendation at the end of his essay. But where he seems to be saying such incentives would provide an alternative to recycling, they may be better viewed as an enabler of recycling. Not wasting materials in the first place is inherently more efficient, and therefore more profitable, than recovering wasted materials through recycling. Recycling then becomes the last resort, as it should be.

For those who might argue such incentives would hurt the economy, look again at the example of Wal-Mart, a company that does nothing unless it serves the bottom line. The retailer calculates that a mere 5 percent reduction in packaging size for its entire product line could yield the company $3.4 billion in annual savings for shipping, storage, disposal, and materials costs. [9]

Now that’s an incentive.


[1] The per capita waste figures are derived from the most recent waste data published in the biennial “The State of Garbage in America,” a joint project of the journal BioCycle and the Earth Engineering Center of Columbia University. http://www.seas.columbia.edu/earth/wtert/sofos/SOG2010.pdf

This data, based on actual measurement of materials entering America’s landfills, reveals considerably higher landfilling and lower recycling percentages than the flawed but better-known municipal solid waste data gathered by the Environmental Protection Agency.  For more on this, see my article “Garbage in, Garbage Out,” in the March/April 2012 edition of Sierra. http://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/201203/grapple-trash-bible-126.aspx

[2] “Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 2009 Facts and Figures,” EPA’s most recent publicly available full report. http://www.epa.gov/osw/nonhaz/municipal/pubs/msw2009rpt.pdf

[3] The EPA has developed energy savings data in terms of millions of BTUs in the 2005 report, “Waste Management and Energy Savings: Benefits by the Numbers” http://epa.gov/climatechange/wycd/waste/downloads/Energy%20Savings.pdf .

Jeffrey Morris of Sound Resources Management has used similar data but presents it as percentage savings, publically accessible in his 2006 presentation, “Environmental Economics of Discards” http://www.zerowaste.com/docs/Environmental%20Economics%20of%20Discards%…

and also detailed in “Is Recycling Worth It?” Popular Mechanics, Nov. 13, 2008 http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/environment/recycling/4291566-2

[4] “Does Recycling Plastic Cost More Than Making It?” Live Science, Christopher Intagliata, Nov. 3, 2012. http://www.livescience.com/32231-does-recycling-plastic-cost-more-than-m…

[5] “U.S. Scrap Exports to China Losing Their Luster?” Journal of Commerce, June 3, 2013 http://www.joc.com/international-trade-news/trade-data/united-states-tra… (subscription required). According to the article,  “Scrap metals, plastics and paper are the largest U.S. containerized export commodities, together accounting for 15.5 percent of all U.S. outbound container trade last year… By value, U.S. scrap exports totaled $21.5 billion last year, with China accounting for 43 percent.”

[6] China’s ‘Queen of Trash’ finds riches in waste paper,” New York Times, Jan. 15, 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/15/business/worldbusiness/15iht-trash.421…

[8] See EPA’s Pay As You Throw website, http://www.epa.gov/epawaste/conserve/tools/payt/index.htm

and “The Pay-as-You-Throw Payoff,” Janice Canterbury and Ryan Newill, American City and County, Oct. 1, 2003http://americancityandcounty.com/mag/government_payasyouthrow_payoff

Also from This Issue

Editorial Note

Lead Essay

  • Recycling: Can It Be Wrong, When It Feels So Right? by Michael C. Munger

    Michael C. Munger begins with the assertion that almost everything that’s said about recycling is wrong. Zero waste isn’t a good policy goal. Some things really do belong in the landfill. But which ones are they, and why? Munger offers a tour of the economics of trash burning, trash collection, landfill subsidies, and mandatory recycling. Along the way, he points out some of the irrational behaviors that flow from the “always recycle” message – irrational even when our highest priority is saving the environment.

Response Essays

  • Changing Government’s Role in Recycling by Melissa Walsh Innes

    Melissa Walsh Innes argues in favor of “extended producer responsibility”—a public policy approach to solid waste that would assign landfill and other disposal costs to producers, not taxpayers. If this were done, corporations would seek out more efficient packaging, more comprehensive recycling methods, and other ways to economize on their use of disposal resources. Consumers would bear the costs in more expensive products, but only if they purchased the products in question. Consumers’ choices would drive producers to make market-based decisions that internalize and/or eliminate the externalities in question. Taxpayers would pay nothing extra, a key difference from many existing recycling programs.

  • Don’t Cast Recycling as a Moral Issue by Steven E. Landsburg

    Steven E. Landsburg argues that promoting recycling as a moral issue has a sinister cost: It encourages the public to view policy questions moralistically. When they do, they lose sight of tradeoffs, and the ability to compromise deserts them. If we absolutely must preach a morality, he says, let us preach the morality of respecting price signals. These will usually tell us when actions are efficient or inefficient. In short, we should encourage an ethos of respect for voluntary market outcomes.

The Conversation