Recycling can receive negative attention for different reasons.
One reason you may have heard is that some of the waste you put in your recycling bin may actually end up in landfill (a large cause for this is that China stopped accepting recycling waste from places like the US, Australia and the UK – and the recycling systems in those countries didn’t have capacity or the means to recycle everything – so excess material was sent to landfill).
So, in this guide, we discuss whether recycling is worth it, or if it’s a waste of time.
Summary – Is Recycling Worth It, Or A Waste Of Time?
Overall, recycling does seem to be worth it, and can be a very important part of a healthy city.
But, like most things, there’s a few caveats to that statement.
Recycling is worth it if:
- The right materials and items are being recycled i.e. aluminum, metal, some hard plastics and some types of paper. These materials tend to have a net positive financial and environmental impact when recycled compared to sent to landfill and made from new virgin materials
- Efficient and cost effective recycling systems, technology and facilities are set up within a particular city i.e. the contract between the recycling company and the government makes financial sense long term, and the actual processing facilities as well as the rest of the recycling process (such as the recycling trucks) are functioning in a way that is efficient and financially and environmentally viable
- A lifecycle assessment is done on each type of recyclable material and it works out better from a financial and environmental perspective to recycle – and these lifecycle assessments are shared with the general public (as taxpayers and residents, as well as businesses are likely in part to pay fees and levies to help fund the system). Residents and businesses should know what waste is going where, and how to manage, treat and dispose of their recyclable and non recyclable waste
On the other hand, recycling may not be worth it if:
- Dealing with non-recyclable materials
- The materials being recycled have little or no market value or demand, or are easier, cheaper and better to make new e.g. some types of plastic, paper, and most types of glass
- The recycling systems, technology and facilities are set up within a particular city in such a way that they are inefficient and not stable from a financial and environmental perspective (comparing San Francisco to places like Chicago and New York city is an example like this – SF’s recycling rates are much higher due much in part to better systems)
- Sending the material to a landfill that can catch and treat most of the leachate and methane, as well as keep hard rubbish in the landfill (and not let it escape to the ocean), is more effective from a cost and environmental standpoint.
- Recycling is just being done so a particular city can have a certain ‘green image’, and there is no lifecycle assessment done on each type of recyclable waste as to the impact on cost, environment, humans etc.
But…a better option than all three of landfill, incineration or recycling is simply to reduce or re-use waste in the first place.
Being mindful of the items we use and trying to use naturally bio degradable or compostable materials, or buying secondhand items that can be re-used – are both preferable over landfill, incineration and recycling.
More Information On When & Why Recycling Might Be Worth It, Or Even A Waste Of Time
It’s worth reading these guides about the financial and environmental factors that go into choosing recycling:
They both support the statement that recycling can certainly be worth it for certain materials, and with an economically and environmentally feasible recycling system set up for a city/community.
Recycling can be profitable, provide jobs, and be good for the environment.
San Francisco is one such example of a city that recycles and/or composts up to around 80% of the city’s waste – this is one of the highest landfill diversion rates (keeping total waste away from landfills, and diverting it to recycling and composting facilities) in the world.
It is worth mentioning though that systems like this require a large upfront investment, and a long term view to form partnerships with one recycling company, as well as get policies, fees, levies and schemes set up with residents and businesses – to make sure the system is running smoothly. So, it’s something that requires analysis, thought, planning and good execution for each city.
It’s also true that recycling is certainly not worth it if the demand, economic value, or environmental benefit of the recycled material is simply not there, or if the recycling systems within a city aren’t suitable.
Landfills have come a long way in the last 20 to 30 years – with better linings and technology to catch and treat leachates and methane. Landfills are actually able to make energy out of the gas emissions they produce now. Developed countries also do a much better job of managing and containing waste than developing countries too. So, in some cases – landfill or incineration might be a better option.
What is interesting is that there may still be improvements to be made in the recycling industry if manufacturers can work to create new and bigger markets for recycled materials. The glass industry creating new or bigger demand for recycled glass is one such example.
Along with new demand, redesigning existing products to make them more recyclable can help.
Another area for improvement is sectors like the packaging sector (where most of the plastic waste comes from) being able to reduce waste at the production stage, and also consumers and business re-thinking their behavior to reduce or re-use waste too – which can help change the type of waste we generate, or even cut out some types of waste altogether.