Recycling: Is it the right thing to do?

Recycling, “it’s the right thing to do,” right? We hear that line in Montana a lot. And the people that use it gain the moral high ground against skeptics, like me. I have been accused of being an anti-environmentalist as a result. Environmentalist or not, I do believe in conservation. And recycling more to meet an arbitrary mandate does not necessarily make environmental sense.

Montana State University, like many others across the nation, has a goal to increase recycling. The stated goal is to cut waste by 25 percent by 2020. I am not sure where the 25 percent figure came from. It is a nice figure, divisible by five, sounds good.

The purpose is to reduce waste by recycling more because it saves money and is good for the environment. And, we are told, it reduces our carbon footprint. The argument is that recycling more means less garbage is sent to the landfill, so less money is spent in tipping fees. But the costs expended to do that extra recycling are not fully accounted for. The university may “save” money by sending less to the local landfill, but money is spent collecting and delivering the recyclables. A lot of that is done by individuals using their own time and resources to get the material to a common location. That energy and effort expended is hard to tabulate, so providing a fair analysis can be difficult.

Those recyclables then need to be delivered to the manufacturing plant where they are actually transformed. That can be a long way. That transportation takes energy, and more energy is used to remanufacture them. The additional transportation and remanufacturing have their own environmental impact.

Finally, by reducing the waste in the landfill there is less methane produced which can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Many new landfills actually collect methane, however, and use it to power homes and industry nearby. The local landfill here does not have that capability. But all that additional transport of recyclables and the remanufacturing increases carbon emissions. Whether those emissions are better or worse than the methane that would otherwise be emitted from the landfill has not been determined.

The bottom line is that recycling can be more or less environmentally friendly than the alternatives. It depends upon the materials being recycled, the location of recycling, or distance from remanufacturing, and who is doing the recycling. Recycling at the industry level, for example, often makes more environmental sense because the recyclable materials are already in one common location.

For more, see Dan Benjamin’s study on the myths of recycling.

Originally posted at Environmental Trends.


  1. Shelley Robbins says:

    You are completely ignoring the avoided costs and energy consumption inherent in manufacturing from virgin resources. Shall we manufacture polyester carpet fiber from reclaimed PET from nearby states or from petroleum imported from the Middle East (the cost of which does not include the cost of our armed forces needed to keep shipping lanes open and safe)? In addition, a landfill typically only generates methane for about 25 years after a critical mass is achieved. It is not an endless supply of energy to rely upon. And regarding Benjamin’s claims about landfill space – yes, we may have open land, but no one wants to live near a landfill. For political and social reasons (not regulatory), it is almost impossible to build a new landfill in any state with a half decent population base. Montana is hardly an example for the rest of the country. So waste reduction and commodity diversion extend the life of existing landfill airspace. The NPV of future landfill airspace is rarely properly accounted for.

  2. Many communities and recycling programs ask participants to rinse and clean their recyclables before recycling. Clean water is a scarce resource and the benefits from water saved (and the power used to pump and make the water drinkable) by not recycling would probably be greater than the benefits of recycling, except maybe for aluminum.


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