olks in the tech world are familiar with what is called the “hype cycle,” in which a new technology is initially praised to the skies, then gets criticized mercilessly as a complete failure, and finally (sometimes) settles in for the long haul.
I’m going through something like that with the whole idea of recycling.
First I was a recycling cheerleader, salvaging bottles and cans out of trash cans to the exasperation of my co-workers. Then over the past two years, starting with China’s 2018 decision to stop taking the world’s trash, the scales have fallen from my eyes and I’ve become a loud critic, arguing that recycling is closer to a scam than a solution.
Now I think it’s time to settle in for the long haul and carefully re-embrace the concept of turning used stuff into something useful. I’ll start with an old example that is slowly coming back to life: Recycling glass bottles and jars.
Note, however, that I no longer pretend recycling is a magic solution that makes bad stuff disappear. It has become obvious that very often, voluntary recycling will never work and should be abandoned.
Instead, the financial and logistical onus for de-trashing the world should be placed on the companies that sell products, not on the tax dollars and volunteer labor of the people who buy those products. That’s particularly the case with plastics, and it’s going to take a lot of laws and rules to force the industry to change.
We can see a bit of this process in the story of glass recycling.
Why did glass recycling end?
I’m old enough to remember when the only recycling was the Boy Scouts collecting aluminum cans. Then towns began to collect bottles because it’s relatively simple to turn them into raw glass that could be sold.
This straightforward technology and a local market created the best kind of recycling, known as circular recycling: Used bottles became new bottles, which became used bottles which became new bottles, over and over and over.
So it was a surprise to me when many New Hampshire towns canceled glass recycling following National Sword, the name for China’s decision in January 2018 to do less of the world’s trash processing. I thought glass recycling was easy and useful enough to continue.
The problem, as I wrote about at the time, was a massive bottle-manufacturing plant in Franklin, Mass., which closed abruptly in spring 2018, partly because of consumers’ switch from bottled beer to cans.
“It was the largest purchaser of recycled glass in the country. They were making it into glass bottles and jars, which is, of course, the ideal,” said Reagan Bissonnette, executive director of the Northeast Resource Recovery Association. The NRRA is a recycling industry group that has about 100 towns and cities as members, including where I live.
Combined with the National Sword cutoff , Bissonnette said, “It left many communities without a ready market to recycle their glass.”
Towns like mine, suddenly faced with high piles of busted glass that they could no longer sell or use, gave up and told us to toss it with our trash, sending it to landfills just like the bad old days. (A few places, with NRRA’s help, grind it up to use in roadwork but that’s far from a complete solution.)
Then a month or two ago, my town began accepting bottles and jars again at our transfer station.
Why? You can thank the NRRA. It signed a contract with 2M Resources in Canada, which takes this glass and turns it into fiberglass insulation.
This is a good thing, but it’s not as good as turning bottles back into bottles ad infinitum. Eventually, the fiberglass is going to end up in a landfill. We’ve only delayed disposal, not avoided it.
Also, the recycling isn’t as useful as it once was because glass-like objects such as ceramics and Pyrex which had previously been accepted are now forbidden. Only bottles and jars are allowed, although some non-glass gets in the mix because we’re only human.
That brings us to the trickiest part of the equation: Money.
The dreaded bottle bill
Bissonnette explained that ceramics and Pyrex have a different melting temperature than pure glass. This doesn’t matter too much when you’re melting everything to make insulation, so the fiberglass plant will accept the load from my town and not worry too much about contamination. Recycling glass for containers is more exacting, she said. Any ceramics or Pyrex in the mix can lead to weak spots, and you don’t want to put pressurized beer into a bottle with weak spots.
As a result, bottle factories will pay much less for recycled glass, or even not accept it at all, if they can’t be sure that it contains glass and only glass.
How do they ensure that? Bottle bills.
When money is involved, as with a mandatory bottle deposit, there’s an incentive for everybody to do things correctly.
Bissonnette said 2M Resources will pay somewhere around $20 a ton right now for glass from states with bottle bills but won’t pay anything for our glass – in fact, we have to pay to ship it to Quebec. (That’s still cheaper than landfilling glass and is worth the effort since glass makes up at least 14% of the average community’s trash by weight.)
Bottle manufacturing may soon return to New England. If it does, the value of pure glass from bottle-bill states will probably go higher but live-free-or-die New Hampshire won’t profit. You and I will be stuck with higher taxes for disposing of our community’s glass because we don’t want to be stuck with the inconvenience of mandatory bottle deposits.
There’s an industry parallel. Take Coca-Cola, which fights hard to not be stuck with the cost of collecting and doing something with the 3 million tons of plastic bottles it makes each year. Their success means Coke is cheaper when we buy it but also means we get stuck with the cost, environmental and financial, of cleaning up all those bottles.
Worse, there’s no incentive for Coke to figure out plastic-free ways to sell its product. Shareholders don’t really care if the world is trashed because there’s no effect on the quarterly report.
But if the disposal costs hit the bottom line – let’s say Coke had to pay a nickel for every bottle it made and only got the money back when it could show that the bottle had been recycled in a circular manner – you can be sure the company would employ all its industrial cleverness to creating alternatives.
It wouldn’t be painless, since drinks would almost certainly be more expensive and some flavors might not be worth producing. And it would create a cumbersome regulatory process. But it could eliminate the waste problem instead of just shifting responsibility around.
Reduce first, recycle later
The painful truth is that there’s no free lunch. We can’t enjoy the convenience of cheap, useful, universal products without somebody somewhere paying the environmental costs. Recycling may or may not help, depending on how it’s done, but the only solution is to use less in the first place.
“Recycling should not replace reduction,” agreed Bissonnette. “We should be following the hierarchy – first reducing waste, then recycling our waste and composting, and then landfilling should be at the end.”
This is an interesting argument from the NRRA because waste reduction hits their bottom line. Their income, after all, depends on the amount of stuff they recycle.
In fact, one of the deepest concerns about recycling is how it creates an industry that needs us to continue generating trash to serve as their raw material. The same argument is used against burning trash for power, which gives trash value and created a perverse incentive to create more of it.
Individuals face a psychological version of that perverse incentive. It feels more virtuous to buy a plastic bottle of water and recycle it than to drink water out of a fountain, even though the latter is much better for the planet. Perhaps if recycling didn’t exist and the only option was to trash that bottle, more of us would use the fountain.
So what does this all mean?
It means that intelligent recycling can help reduce the problem but won’t solve it. Solving it requires doing two things we don’t want to do: using less of everything and getting our politicians and regulators to force industries to take full responsibility for the objects they sell, even though it will increase our prices and reduce our choices.
Nothing else will keep us from completely trashing the globe, which in the long run (or maybe not so long, at the rate things are going) would be worse than higher prices and less variety on the store shelves.