February 10, 2018
Plastics recycling: you’re doing it wrong. And so is everybody else.
In August 2014, Russell Klein wrote an article which was published in TriplePundit; much of the information in this post was taken from that article.
For the past 25 years, our modest national efforts to do-the-right-thing by recycling plastic products have suffered from widespread misunderstanding and even marketing disinformation.
Don’t want to be part of the problem? Consider this an intervention.
To start off, this: is not an indication of recyclability.
Nor are any of these:
In fact, just to be clear, these emblems are not indicative of:
- Recycled content
- Compatibility with other products of the same Sustainable Greeny Goodness
In the 1980s, the American plastics industry was feeling a squeeze. Environmentalists were concerned over the abandonment of refillable glass and metal vessels by an increased use of disposable, litter-ready plastic bottles. Scrap businesses were finding it hard to sort look-alike plastics, and state legislatures were pushing for a national, codified system to help recyclers identify all of these plastic bottles.
As a result of these pressures, in 1988 the Society of the Plastics Industry (an American trade association) introduced the Resin Identification Codes (RICs), pictured above. This was a once-in-a-generation, sector-wide initiative, intended to address the concerns of environmentalists, industrialists and state governments seeking a way to tame and organize the matter of plastics recovery. Placed on the bottom of plastic bottles, markings depicting numbers inside a triangle of chasing arrows identified the six most commonly used plastics (also known as resins), with a seventh class as a catchall for everything else.
Borrowing the “chasing arrows” from the internationally-recognized recycling Möbius Strip quickly proved controversial, and to this day this system conveys far less than self-appointed recycling gurus assume.
At the time of their launch, these marks were solely intended to help waste sorters identify the plastics used in bottles. The markings were placed on the bottom of the bottles so they would not affect consumer purchasing decisions. Indeed, they were never meant to be used by the general public at all! Bottles were the original target of the Resin Identification Codes as they were the most readily collected, sorted and remarketed plastic scrap available. Nonetheless, it was only a year after the RICs’ introduction that manufacturers of other forms, so-called “rigid plastics” (e.g. buckets, baskets, wide-mouthed jars), were invited to participate in this marking system as well.
Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for the system to outgrow its cradle. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, states all over the country rushed to adopt language to drive public recycling in the wake of a famous national garbage scandal which occurred in 1987: That year a barge named the Mobro 4000 wandered thousands of miles trying to unload its cargo of Long Islanders’ trash, and its journey had a strange effect on America. The citizens of the richest society in the history of the planet suddenly became obsessed with personally handling their own waste. As a result, community messaging and commercial product marketing aimed at the general public began to reference the RICs to define plastic recycling opportunities and to guide consumer behaviors. Unfortunately, this simultaneously created two major, national misperceptions: Forever after the public would a) look for the chasing arrows for reassurance of end-of-life product options, and b) rely upon RIC numbers as the end-all be-all arbiter of which plastic container should go where. Thus, even communities who in the early days may have known enough to ask exclusively for bottles marked with 1s or 2s nonetheless eventually found their recycling containers filled with all kinds of dissimilar — and ultimately useless – packaging forms.
Why is it useless? What is it that thwarts recyclability when plastics of a single number are lumped together? There are two things; the first is chemistry. Think of it this way: Every major product shape represents a different manufacturing process. A bottle, a laundry basket and a trash bin may all contain the same ingredient – high-density polyethylene (HDPE, or No. 2), nonetheless, their chemical recipes are as different as their forms because each was manufactured for a different purpose, in a different manner, by a different machine. The recipe that works for a machine that air-inflates bottles all day is not the same as that which is required for a machine injecting plastics into molded cups. Nonetheless, because each manufacturer began with high-density polyethylene, both objects are marked on the bottom with the No. 2 triangle. However, melt these products together for recycling purposes and you get … a smelly, chunky mess that’s useless to either manufacturer.
So when does recycling actually work?
Consumer product recycling is only possible when you have three things going for you: consistent, post-consumer collections; economical remanufacturing; and consistent consumer demand. If you cannot efficiently collect similar products to send to a manufacturer, you lose economy of scale. If the used materials are too contaminated, too expensive to process (clean or sort) or too costly to ship across country, you may lose customers to your competitor in the next region or to companies selling only virgin materials. Bear in mind, clean post-consumer goods are hard to guarantee. Sometimes what seems like a little bit of contamination in your plastic, paper or glass may produce discolored newsprint, bottles with cracks or jars with bubbles. Nonetheless, consumers expect recycled products to be just as good as the original material … but less expensive. In reality, this is very hard to do in the absence of a well-trained, committed community that properly sorts its recyclables.
So, now the resin codes (RICs) are applied across products of all shapes and chemical variations, occasionally for the misguided, commercial advantage of ‘green credentials.’ So how does one know when a number in a recycling triangle is a legitimate indication of something? The answer is: By and large, you don’t. Assuming a single recycling program would attempt to recover only all No. 1s, or only all No. 2s, thereby including bottles, cups, buckets, wall trim, action figures, etc., as we said before, manufacturers downstream would quickly find that melting such products together produces only a colorful, chunky, contaminated mess. To reiterate: Within the RICs, there are too many chemical variants distributed among too few categories.
At this point, as a concerned consumer, you’re beginning to recognize two major problems: a meaningless number and a misleading recycling sign. If you’re still determined to use these marks to understand what is recyclable in your home or office collection, ask yourself a question: How could a bottling company 400 miles away possibly know what’s acceptable in this particular neighborhood or office building? Alternatively, was the product imported from manufacturers abroad? In that case, a meaningful indication of recyclability is even less likely.
Mandatory recycling programs aren’t good for posterity. They offer mainly short-term benefits to a few groups — politicians, public relations consultants, environmental organizations, waste-handling corporations — while diverting money from genuine social and environmental problems. Recycling may be the most wasteful activity in modern America: a waste of time and money, a waste of human and natural resources.
The obvious temptation is to blame journalists, who did a remarkable job of creating the garbage crisis, often at considerable expense to their own employers. Newspaper and magazine publishers, whose products are a major component of municipal landfills, nobly led the crusade against trash, and they’re paying for it now through regulations that force them to buy recycled paper — a costly handicap in their struggle against electronic rivals. It’s the first time that an industry has conducted a mass-media campaign informing customers that its own product is a menace to society. But the press isn’t solely responsible for recycling fervor; the public’s obsession wouldn’t have lasted this long unless recycling met some emotional need. Just as third graders believe that their litter run was helping the planet, Americans have embraced recycling as a transcendental experience, an act of moral redemption. We’re not just reusing ourgarbage; we’re performing a rite of atonement for the sin of excess.
The bottom line is: this numbered system so beloved – or hated – by consumers everywhere wasn’t meant for you, the consumer, and fell apart early on. It’s time to let it go in favor of something better. And to those of you who continually argue with your spouse – or your local recycling office – over the recyclability of a strawberry container “because it has a number one!” … Cut it out. Let it go. It’s over.
Epilogue. Where does this leave a conscientious recycler?
Ask your local government recycling office what products are mandated for recycling in your community. If you receive collection from a private company (at your office, school or apartment building), ask the property manager for a clear description of acceptable materials. Although most recyclers sort based upon shape (e.g. bottles, trays, tubs, etc.), it is possible your collection representative will offer you literature that remains mired in Resin Identification Code numbers. While you might offer to assist their future efforts to clarify this information (via the recycling center relevant to your community), until then you should follow the rules as given. Your local recycling opportunities always depend upon what materials are mandated for recycling by your local government. What else is consistently accepted by your school, home or office recycling collection service?
In 1996, John Tierney wrote an article for the New York Times Magazine arguing that the recycling process as we carried it out was wasteful. And not much has happened since then. Despite decades of exhortations and mandates, it’s still typically more expensive for municipalities to recycle household waste than to send it to a landfill. Prices for recyclable materials have plummeted because of lower oil prices and reduced demand for them overseas. The slump has forced some recycling companies to shut plants and cancel plans for new technologies.
While politicians set higher and higher goals, the national rate of recycling has stagnated in recent years. Yes, it’s popular in affluent neighborhoods like Park Slope in Brooklyn and in cities like San Francisco, but residents of the Bronx or Houston don’t have the save fervor for sorting garbage in their spare time. 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.
“If you believe recycling is good for the planet and that we need to do more of it, then there’s a crisis to confront,” says David P. Steiner, the chief executive officer of Waste Management, the largest recycler of household trash in the United States. “Trying to turn garbage into gold costs a lot more than expected. We need to ask ourselves: What is the goal here?”
In New York City, the net cost of recycling a ton of trash is now $300 more than it would cost to bury the trash instead. That adds up to millions of extra dollars per year — about half the budget of the parks department — that New Yorkers are spending for the privilege of recycling. That money could buy far more valuable benefits, including more significant reductions in greenhouse emissions.
So what is a socially conscious, sensible person to do?
It would be much simpler and more effective to impose the equivalent of a carbon tax on garbage, as Thomas C. Kinnaman has proposed after conducting what is probably the most thorough comparison of the social costs of recycling, landfilling and incineration. Dr. Kinnaman, an economist at Bucknell University, considered everything from environmental damage to the pleasure that some people take in recycling (the “warm glow” that makes them willing to pay extra to do it). He concludes that the social good would be optimized by subsidizing the recycling of some metals, and by imposing a $15 tax on each ton of trash that goes to the landfill. That tax would offset the environmental costs, chiefly the greenhouse impact, and allow each municipality to make a guilt-free choice based on local economics and its citizens’ wishes. The result, Dr. Kinnaman predicts, would be a lot less recycling than there is today.
Then why do so many public officials keep vowing to do more of it?
Special-interest politics is one reason — pressure from green groups — but it’s also because recycling intuitively appeals to many voters: It makes people feel virtuous, especially affluent people who feel guilty about their enormous environmental footprint. It is less an ethical activity than a religious ritual, like the ones performed by Catholics to obtain indulgences for their sins. Religious rituals don’t need any practical justification for the believers who perform them voluntarily. But many recyclers want more than just the freedom to practice their religion. They want to make these rituals mandatory for everyone else, too, with stiff fines for sinners who don’t sort properly. Seattle has become so aggressive that the city is being sued by residents who maintain that the inspectors rooting through their trash are violating their constitutional right to privacy.
But cities have been burying garbage for thousands of years, and it’s still the easiest and cheapest solution for trash. The recycling movement is floundering, and its survival depends on continual subsidies, sermons and policing. How can you build a sustainable city with a strategy that can’t even sustain itself?