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Is recycling good for the environment? Well of course, but maybe not the way we do it. John Tierney argued in The New York Times that much of our current recycling, while well-intentioned, is wrongheaded, costly and in some cases may be doing more harm than good.
Bucknell University economist Thomas Kinnaman similarly wants America to rethink recycling. He says some materials - like tin cans and aluminum - are very hard to make using virgin materials and it's best to recycle them.
But for others, like glass and plastic, if you take into account the cost of hauling the recycling to recycling centers (which can sometimes be further away than landfills), and how easy it is to make plastic and glass from virgin materials, it may not make sense to recycle them as much as we are now.
Here & Now's Robin Young speaks with Kinnaman about his vision for how the U.S. should be recycling.
Interview Highlights: Thomas Kinnaman
On findings that recycling is not as beneficial as once believed
“It surprised me as well. So once we consider the full effects of recycling to both the economy and the environment, it does look like some of the benefits associated with recycling are not as strong as we once thought. You know, every time you make a decision as a household whether to recycle a bottle or to throw it out, you are entering a life cycle. So there’s a life cycle associated with the recycling process and there’s a separate life cycle that’s associated with the landfill or disposing process. And so you have to list all of the environmental and economic consequences of entering each life cycle. So for recycling, it does take energy to collect that material, to process it, to transport it to recycling facilities, and then to finally put it back into production. And the benefit we’re seeing from that is that for some materials, the ability to use those recycled materials offset the need to use virgin or raw materials for the same production processes. So that turns out to be a great benefit for some materials, but for others it doesn’t.”
What items are not as cost beneficial to recycle and which are beneficial?
“OK, so the really beneficial things to recycle are aluminum cans or any forms of aluminum that you have around the house that you’re considering to dispose. The environmental costs to mine new alumina and bauxite to produce new aluminum from scratch are fairly substantial, so anything we can do to maximize our recycling of aluminum turns out to be a win-win. Bimetal tin cans – these are the soup cans, the vegetable cans that we buy some of our food with – those also have a very, very positive life cycle signature, and again, we want to refocus policy to recycle more of these things than we currently are. Some of the other materials – and actually, by the way, paper as well has a very positive life cycle signature mainly, again, because it’s difficult and arduous to produce paper from scratch. Glass bottles, plastic bottles, other forms of plastic – a lot of us want to recycle those things. I think the environment and the economy would rather that we didn’t.”
Why is it not as economical to recycle plastic and glass?
“Well, first of all, it’s fairly comparatively easy to make plastic and glass from scratch. So it doesn’t have as much of an energy requirement, as much as an environmental impact. Secondly, I know plastic itself per bottle, they take up a lot of space. You can try to smash them up, but it’s relatively more expensive to take a ton of plastic somewhere to get it recycled. So the transportation costs, both the economic and environmental costs associated with the transportation of plastic tend to be higher than for other materials on a per ton basis because they’re not very dense in terms of weight.”
On landfills now being built in ways that make them more valuable
Glass bottles, plastic bottles, other forms of plastic – a lot of us want to recycle those things. I think the environment and the economy would rather that we didn’t.
“A lot of this, these advances in landfills, have happened primarily in the United States and primarily in response to both federal and state legislation that require very strict standards on how you build a landfill and how you manage and operate that landfill. They still present a problem to neighborhoods. Nobody wants to live next to a landfill. Economic data and models are very clear that being located within two miles of a landfill does reduce the value of your properties. So these things are not environmentally great, but you just compare in the margin using a landfill relative to putting plastic through a very energy-intensive process to recycle, then in terms of a carbon footprint, it comes very close and it may actually, in some cases, be beneficial to recycle that. Modern landfills require very thick linings of clay or impermeable plastics. When they are constructed, they have imbedded in them special grids to allow all methane and all leachate to be collected and treated. In the case of methane, it’s increasingly being used to produce electricity, which can offset the production cost of electricity by using coal or other fossil fuels. And again, a good life cycle model will account for all of these things, and the life cycle models are looking more favorably on landfilling and incineration then they were 25 years ago.”
On changing the way people view recycling
“Recycling and the culture that surrounded it, I think a lot of people and advocates of recycling thought of it as sort of a gateway behavior in that once you began recycling it would open up a whole flurry of other environmentally responsible activities that we could pursue. We might start riding our bike or walking more than driving our car. And, you know, I think other experts could talk about this as well, but it just doesn’t seem to have worked that way. I think in some cases, you could almost characterize recycling as a way of atoning for all of our environmental sins, if you will, and as long as we’re recycling, then we feel better about ourselves and then we can go ahead and drive our big car, and go ahead and keep our lights on and keep our thermostat high, and it’s almost being viewed as a substitute for other forms of environmental responsible behavior.”
- Thomas Kinnaman, chair of the Department of Economics at Bucknell University.
This segment aired on October 14, 2015.