Should that empty soda bottle go in the recycling bin or the trash can? Increasingly, it doesn't really matter.
A large portion of America's plastic and paper waste used to go from our recycling bins to China, where it was refashioned into everything from shoes to bags to new plastic products. But since the end of 2017, China has restricted how much foreign trash—er, recycling—it buys, including cutting off purchases of waste paper products, like all the junk mail that goes directly from your mailbox to the recycling bin.
As a result, The Atlantic reported Tuesday, some American cities and towns are sending all those recyclables directly to the landfill.
In Franklin, New Hampshire, for example, a curbside recycling program that launched in 2010 was able to break-even when the town was selling used paper, metals, and plastics for about $6 per ton. Now, the town is being charged $125 per ton to recycle that stuff. Instead of asking residents to pay much higher prices to recycle or cutting other city services in order to be able to afford the recycling program, city officials have decided instead to send those recyclables to an incinerator. Towns in Idaho, New York, Virginia, and elsewhere have had to make similar choices in recent months, The Atlantic reports, as environmental signaling has come at a steeper price.
Some places are stockpiling their recyclables in the hopes that things will turn around—in other words, in the hopes that China will start buying more American refuse again—but the sudden shift in the market has less to do with China than it does with the American fascination with recycling. Even as municipal recycling programs became almost ubiquitous in America over the past few decades, the underlying infrastructure remained economically and environmentally flawed.
"Recycling has been relentlessly promoted as a goal in and of itself: an unalloyed public good and private virtue that is indoctrinated in students from kindergarten through college. As a result, otherwise well-informed and educated people have no idea of the relative costs and benefits," wrote John Tierney in a must-read 2015 op-ed for The New York Times that predicted many of the problems facing the municipalities highlighted in The Atlantic's story—including the slumping demand for recycled goods brought on by lower oil prices and cheaper manufacturing processes.
In fact, Tierney predicted many of those same problems all the way back in 1996, when he authored a longer takedown of the American recycling regime for The New York Times Magazine. In that piece, he argued that "recycling may be the most wasteful activity in modern America: a waste of time and money, a waste of human and natural resources."
Meanwhile, it remains far cheaper to simply bury the trash. As Tierney noted in that 1996 piece, all the trash generated by Americans for the next 1,000 years will fit into less than 1 percent of the land currently used for grazing animals. Modern methods of landfilling mitigate environmental hazards and allow the land to be reused for parks, grazing animals, or building baseball and tennis stadiums.
Which isn't to say that all recycling is bad or that it should never be done. There are cost-effective ways to reuse some common goods, like paper, under some circumstances. But Tierney's view—and the reality now facing some American cities with expensive recycling programs—is that the benefits of recycling have been overstated for years and the costs never clearly understood.
Consider a simple municipal recycling program. You've got a few guys riding around town on large trucks to collect all that plastic, aluminum, and paper waste. You've got to pay them, of course, and you have to buy and maintain the truck, and put gas in it—which means you're creating more greenhouse gases. And that's just to collect everything. You have to pay more people to dig through it and decide what's recyclable and what's not, and about 25 percent of what enters the recycling stream is too contaminated to be useful, according to the National Waste & Recycling Association. Then you have to use more trucks, barges, and trains to get it wherever it needs to go to be recycled. Paper has to be pulped, which requires heat, which might be provided by a coal-powered plant (more greenhouse emissions). The same is true for plastic, which has to be washed with hot water and then melted down.
Americans are really good at buying stuff, and many consumer goods are cheaper than ever. That means we create a lot of waste—60 percent more of it in 2015 than in 1985. But this is a very good sort of problem to have. People living in poor countries don't have the luxury of worrying about recycling or landfilling the things they can't afford to buy in the first place.
We're also just not very good at recycling, despite decades of advocacy campaigns. As Reason's Christian Britschgi has reported, the Environmental Protection Agency says only about 9.5 percent of the plastic generated in 2014 was recycled that year, with 15 percent being incinerated and 75.5 percent of it winding up in landfills.
That's why it's particularly galling to see some places respond to the recycling crisis by focusing on what The Atlantic's Alana Semuels terms the "fourth r beyond 'reduce, reuse, and recycle'—'refuse.'" San Francisco's city government, she writes, "wants people to be smarter about what they purchase, avoiding plastic bottles and straws and other disposable goods."
Asking people to be more thoughtful consumers is one thing, but San Francisco isn't really asking. The city has banned some products entirely, like plastic bags and straws, and has imposed taxes on single-use items like carry-out boxes. That's not going to make recycling more economically feasible or environmentally friendly, but it is going to drive up the cost of doing business in the city and create more inconveniences for everyone who lives there. As for the idea that the tech-heavy Bay Area is going to suddenly become a place where people don't want to buy new things, well, I'll believe that when I see it.
Like most other civic issues, recycling programs should be judged by their costs and benefits. That means an honest assessment of the costs and benefits, one that leaves out the social signaling of environmentalism and the feel-good effects of putting an empty Coke bottle in a plastic bin that's painted blue instead of black. There is no need to recycle all the things all the time, and the market seems to be sending towns and cities a powerful signal about the benefits of calling trash, trash.