If our current approach to recycling isn’t the best for the economy or the environment, why do we do it?
February 8, 2016 — Criticize recycling and you may as well be using a fume-spewing chainsaw to chop down ancient redwoods, as far as most environmentalists are concerned. But recent research into the environmental costs and benefits and some tough-to-ignore market realities have even the most ardent of recycling fans questioning the current system.
No one is saying that using old things to make new things is intrinsically a bad idea, but consensus is building around the idea that the system used today in the United States on balance benefits neither the economy nor the environment.
In general, local governments take responsibility for recycling. The practice can deliver profits to city and county budgets when commodity prices are high for recycled goods, but it turns recycling into an unwanted cost when commodity markets dip. And recycling is not cheap. According to Bucknell University economist Thomas Kinnaman, the energy, labor and machinery necessary to recycle materials is roughly double the amount needed to simply landfill those materials.
Right now, that equation is being further thrown off by fluctuations in the commodity market. For example, the prices for recycled plastic have dropped dramatically, which has some governments, many of which have been selling their plastic recyclables for the last several years, re-thinking their policies around the material now that they may have to pay for it to be recycled. It’s a decision being driven not by waste management goals or environmental concerns, but for economic reasons that could feasibly change in the next couple of years.
Not only that, but in some cases recycling isn’t even what’s best for the environment.
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