What earth-unconscious miscreant doesn't recycle? What landfill-clogging ignoramus doesn't separate their HDPE's from their LDPE's? Well, before you toss your compost pile at one of these societal outcasts, consider that recycling may not be the environmental cure-all you think it is.
In truth, recycling is not a panacea for an overly abundant material world. In the waste hierarchy recycling ranks fourth, below prevention, minimization and reuse options. Thus, preventing the use of a glass bottle, minimizing the number of glass bottles out there, and reusing a glass bottle for a purpose other than its original one are all preferable steps from an environmental standpoint than recycling.
Recycling, lest we forget, is a stand-alone industry, subject to the laws of supply and demand as well as market whimsy. American cities discovered in the 80s and 90s that recycling could be a profitable alternative to landfill disposal if the price paid by recyclers made up for collecting, hauling, fuel and implementation costs. This was the case in many municipalities until the bottom dropped out of the recyclables market late last year.
In December, New York went from getting $50 to $10 per ton of recycled paper. Some communities prescribed stockpiling until the market rebounded. But, since most municipalities must recycle by law, canceling the programs entirely is not a option in cutting public services.
"Recycling almost universally still makes sense," Thomas Metzger, Director of Public Affairs at the the North American Solid Waste Management Association told Big Think today. He even noted a slight increase in demand from recyclers since the winter low.
Recycling certainly does make sense compared to the less attractive options on the waste hierarchy, but it has strong competition from its neighbors at the top of the pyramid.
Later this week, Big Think will be blogging expert voices that are advocating for bringing prevention, minimization and reuse to the societal scale recycling has enjoyed in the past decades. We'll leave you to point out the herrings.