Is recycling REALLY a waste of time?

After writing last month on John Tierney’s recycling op-ed in The New York Times, I wanted to do some more research about this subject, because I still have to ask, Is recycling really a waste of time? Maybe recycling won’t save the world by itself – okay, Mr. Tierney, I’ll give you that – but what is the real impact of our small, individual contributions?

The first thing I found that seemed most relevant was a Popular Mechanics article from 2008 titled “Is Recycling Worth It? PM Investigates the Environmental and Economic Impact.” This article, which is admittedly several years old, attributes the recycling craze of the last few decades to the 1987 Mobro trash barge debacle, which it says incited a new fervor to save the planet one plastic bottle at a time. Yet, reactionary verve against a potentially nightmarish trash heap may not have been the answer, since the cost in municipal dollars and gasoline-powered trash trucks may have actually caused as many (or more) problems while trying to solve another one. Likewise, we learn that the wildly fluctuating price of collected recyclables causes them to be an unreliable raw material for most businesses that would use them. The example cited is:

In the Pacific Northwest, for example, the price of a ton of mixed recyclables spiked from $33 in 1994 to $170 in 1995 and then plummeted back to $40 in 1996.

The answers about which things to recycle and which to put in a landfill may, in the end, come from an understanding of which materials it feasible to re-use. Makes sense . . . Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, trying to recycle absolutely everything, we may need to accept that some resources are too expensive and too cumbersome to re-use, and will thus become trash. The answer may be to stop using those materials altogether.

About the economic argument that appeared in PM and from Tierney, I personally don’t care if it’s profitable for cities to recycle. The function of a municipal government is not to turn a profit – contrary to conservative rhetoric, governments aren’t businesses – but they do exist to serve the public good. And if recycling serves the public good, then cities need to be doing it— and we need to accept that we will be paying for it.

After going over the pros and cons of “single stream” versus “dual stream” systems, “The Verdict” comes in a form that would mean more to a city manager than to a private citizen like me. The final word, in 2008, was that :

recycling is generally desirable, but it’s not automatically good and efficient and cheap. It takes significant up-front capital investment to implement a state-of-the-art single-stream recycling program. For that reason, the newfound stability of the recycling market is just as important as the high prices, because it allows cities to plan investments around future revenue streams.

Though I learned something from Popular Mechanics, I needed more to really help me to understand whether recycling is a waste of time.

Searching for this big answer using big search terms wasn’t yielding much, so I narrowed my focus, asking, what materials am I actually recycling? For me, it’s kitchen scraps in my compost, and mostly cardboard packaging and plastic drink bottles. (Though I do have a rain barrel for outdoor watering, I’m not savvy enough yet to have a gray-water system.) For me, it’s almost totally kitchen waste. I want to know whether my efforts could have real benefits.

With a little more digging online, I found the US Environmental Protection Agency’s iWarm Tool, when I was browsing the website for Recycle More Minnesota. So what is the iWarm Tool?

We created the Individual Waste Reduction Model (iWARM) to help you find out how much energy you can save when you recycle. The amount of energy saved is shown as the amount of time you can power an appliance. We used data from the iWARM model to create the Save Energy by Recycling web widget, which you can add to your website.

To be frank: on the tech side, I had trouble figuring things out. When I downloaded the zip file from the EPA’s site, it gave me a macro that I could only open as Read-Only using MS Word. Though that document contained very detailed information about what each little recycled item could mean, I couldn’t enter data into it. The website says that it’s supposed to work with Excel. It didn’t, for me.

On the other hand, the iWarm app, available on the iTunes App Store, is much easier to use, though it has less information on it. The app’s simple interface allows a user to plug in numbers, like how many aluminum cans or metal soup cans you’ve recycled, and it translates that sum into energy savings in kilowatt hours (kWh). For example, in a flash, I could find out that recycling two glass wine bottles saved 0.25 kWh, which would run a ceiling fan for 2.05 hours or a dishwasher for 0.10 hours.

Pretty cool . . . as a quick reference guide. But I have to keep those numbers in perspective. It’s not as if I toss two wine bottles in my bin and – viola!– my ceiling fans run for two hours without moving my power meter. Those savings are deferred, of course. But it’s good to know that there are savings, that recycling is indeed worthy of the effort— in environmental terms.

So . . . 

If there are indeed energy savings to recycling, as the EPA’s app would lead me to believe, then the real question is: how can we see those accumulated single-household benefits realized on a larger level? If John Tierney and Popular Mechanics are correct then we need some measurable predictability, I think, to stabilize the economic side. We need participation by individuals, recycling by cities, and consumption by vendors to become more constant. The commodities price of post-consumer raw materials needs to levelize, which will enable cities and waste-management contractors, like Montgomery’s currently closed IREP facility, to keep doing the good work.

How to do that— well, unfortunately, that’s a public policy question that’s way beyond me . . . For my part, if the bigwigs will get a system, I will – as I have done in the past – participate fully and conscientiously. And I think that a lot of other people will, too.

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