In a world that generates a staggering 2.01 billion tons of municipal solid waste annually—of which at least 33% is not managed in an environmentally safe manner—recycling stands as a crucial line of defense against environmental degradation.
Yet, as we confront projections that global waste will soar to 3.4 billion tons by 2050 , the question arises: is recycling still worth it? Is recycling the most effective approach to address our escalating waste and sustainability issues?
Recycling serves multiple important purposes. It alleviates the pressure on our increasingly overflowing landfills, reduces emissions, and lessens the need for raw materials. This has a positive environmental impact. It saves energy and reduces greenhouse gas emissions from additional resource extraction and processing. But the problem is that we are recycling less than 20% of our waste each year.
The rate of waste generation is accelerating, particularly in low-income countries, where waste levels are expected to triple by 2050 . This is not just an environmental concern; it’s also a matter of global health and economic stability. Urgent action is needed, and understanding the real worth of recycling is a key part of the solution.
Is recycling worth it in 2023?
Are we at a tipping point where recycling needs to be reevaluated or significantly improved to remain part of a sustainable future?
Let’s go through a few important arguments about the effectiveness of recycling and find out the final consensus.
The perception of recycling over time
The way we see recycling has changed a lot over the years. Believe it or not, the basic idea of recycling is as old as time. Just think about your grandparents. People have been turning old things into new things for centuries.
Back in the 1800s, if a sock got torn, you’d fix it, not trash it. You would keep fixing it until it couldn’t be fixed anymore. And even then, things would usually get repurposed.
Recycling, then, was more about economics than saving the planet. Metals were hard to find, and before we had garbage trucks, you would be living among your own waste if you didn’t find a way to reuse it.
Then came organized waste management in the late 1800s, and cities started separating reusable items from trash. By 1905, workers were already sorting trash on conveyor belts. Products had value, and people got that. But by the 1920s, that all changed—everything started going straight to the landfills.
Fast forward to more recent times, and you will see the stats reflect our changing attitudes. In 1960, just over 6% of municipal solid waste was recycled. That number crept up to about 10% in 1980 and jumped to 16% by 1990. The new millennium saw a significant increase, with about 29% of waste being recycled in 2000. The rate peaked at about 35% in 2017 but dropped slightly to 32% in 2018.
Recycling has always been a part of human history. What’s changed is why we do it and how seriously we take it.
Is recycling worth it financially?
When it comes to the financial aspect of recycling, the picture is a bit mixed. Let’s dig into some numbers. In San Jose, California, landfilling waste costs a mere $28 per ton, while recycling skyrockets to $147 per ton. In Atlantic County, New Jersey, they earn $2.45 million from selling recyclables but spend over $3 million just collecting and sorting them. Even in New York City, it costs an extra $200 per ton to recycle compared to dumping waste in a landfill .
There are hidden costs too. Educating the public about what can and cannot be recycled requires education and awareness campaigns. Don’t forget the expense of those colorful recycling bins for your home.
When it comes to materials like plastics—which make up a whopping 26% of our recycled waste—producing them from scratch is cheaper than recycling. Why? Because recycling plastics involves added costs for collection, transport, and sorting.
However, it is not all doom and gloom. Take aluminum, for instance. Not only can it be recycled endlessly without losing quality, but the process is also 95% more energy-efficient compared to producing virgin aluminum. Steel and glass follow suit. Both are fully recyclable and often more cost-effective to recycle than to produce anew.
Given the rising demand for high-quality recyclable materials, it's likely that advances in technology will make recycling more cost-effective in the future.
So, perhaps the long-term benefits to our planet and public health make it worth the investment, even when the statistics may not look so positive at the moment. It still is an investment in a healthier and more sustainable world, and this is a factor that isn’t included in the calculations.
How effective are our current recycling efforts?
How effective are our recycling efforts? Unfortunately, the answer is not very, especially when it comes to recycling plastic. In 2018, the national recycling rate was only 32% of total municipal waste, and out of 300 million tons of waste generated, just 69 million tons were recycled. Materials like paper do better, but glass recycling is stuck at about 25% and plastic recycling stands under 10% .
Let’s look at some numbers to understand the scale of the problem with the troublesome plastic. In 2021, the U.S. generated 40 million tons of plastic waste, but only about 5% to 6% of it—around two million tons—was recycled. And it is not like things are improving. Between 2019 and 2020, there was actually a 5.7% decrease in plastics recovered for recycling in the United States. 5.7% may not seem like much, but it equals 290 million pounds of plastic.
One major issue is the vast amount of plastic used for packaging—around 36% of all produced plastic, in fact. What happens to it? A shocking 85% ends up in landfills. Add to this that 98% of single-use plastic products are made from fossil fuels, and you have got a recipe for environmental disaster if things do not slow down.
One of the problems with plastic is what is called “wish-cycling.” People throw things into the blue bins hoping they will be recycled, but often these materials are not suitable and end up contributing to more emissions and waste by polluting the whole batch.
Greenpeace has found that none of the plastic—even soda bottles that people commonly throw into recycling bins—meets the standard to be called “recyclable.” Why? Because for an item to be considered recyclable, it has to have a recycling rate of 30%. No plastic has ever reached that rate .
Then there is the issue of cost and complexity. Plastic is expensive to collect and sort. It also degrades after one or two uses, becoming more toxic each time it is recycled.
What are the main challenges in recycling?
The challenges in recycling are multifaceted. They tap into the economic, technological, behavioral, and systemic problems with material recovery. Unless we address these issues, our effective recycling efforts may remain right below the threshold of being successful from all these points of view.
#1 Economic viability
The first challenge is the cost. The costs involved in the recycling process encompass collection, waste sorting, and then final reprocessing. However, in many cases, the market price for recycled materials is not high enough to cover these costs. Contamination of recyclable materials can further escalate costs as it requires additional labor and technology for sorting and cleaning.
This has prompted some municipalities to reduce or even eliminate recycling programs. Additionally, recycling programs often rely on government subsidies, making them susceptible to budget cuts. If the aim is to save money, the current system isn’t helping much.
#2 Complex waste stream
Modern waste is far from simple. There are various types of plastics, metals, and other materials, each requiring different treatment methods. Unfortunately, from this point we have made our lifestyles more difficult by always looking for new materials and combining the existing ones to achieve primarily some advantage over the competition on the market.
In a world where a single product might consist of multiple, hard-to-separate materials, effective recycling becomes a nearly impossible task.
A term coined for when people recycle items they “wish” or “hope” are recyclable, but actually aren’t. When these non-recyclable items end up in the system, they contaminate other recyclable goods and often lead to the entire lot being discarded. This well-intentioned but misguided behavior adds an unnecessary burden to an already strained system.
#4 Inconsistent programs
The absence of a standardized system complicates matters. What’s recyclable in one community might not be in another, leading to consumer confusion and mistakes that can doom loads of items to landfills rather than recycling centers.
#5 Aging infrastructure
Many existing facilities are outdated and ill-equipped to handle the modern, complex materials in today’s waste stream.
For instance, while aluminum recycling has become more efficient, glass recycling lingers at around 25% effectiveness due to antiquated systems. But both materials have potential to be 100% recovered, their quality doesn’t degrade with repeated use. It is truly only a lack of financing that contributes to this difference.
#6 Environmental Impact vs. effectiveness
While recycling certain materials like aluminum is highly energy-efficient, other materials like plastic offer fewer clear-cut benefits. With the energy consumed in collecting, transporting, and processing these materials, recycling’s net positive impact on climate change is a subject of ongoing debate.
#7 Corporate responsibility
Let’s not forget the role of big businesses. The 20 top petrochemical companies are responsible for 55% of the world’s single-use plastic waste. The problem isn’t just consumer-driven; it also arises on the production end of things.
These are fair points that make it seem that landfills and incinerators are a cheaper option, but they have environmental tolls. If we consider long-term gains, recycling has an edge. It should still be a part of a broader, more sustainable waste management plan.
Well, reading through these reasons brings us to the main question of this article and that is…
Is recycling the most effective way to save the environment? Or is it currently worse for the environment?
We face a climate crisis. We are told recycling can help and it does help in some ways. For instance, 94% of natural resources Americans use are non-renewable. Out of these resources we can find some that can be 100% recovered without losing quality when used repeatedly. Aluminum, glass, and steel are the prime examples. And to add to the benefits, recycling aluminum saves 95% of the energy compared to making it new. These are big wins that can make a lot of difference.
But to understand the true environmental impact, let’s think about the whole process. The best way to protect the Earth is to produce less waste. This cannot be denied by any argument. Making new stuff always emits greenhouse gases. It uses lots of energy and water. From digging up raw materials to shipping products, it is costly to the planet, and it is also polluting. So, yes, recycled steel saves 60% energy. But not making it at all saves even more.
Compared to other climate change mitigation strategies, recycling is not a superstar. Groups like Project Drawdown say it is less effective than protecting forests or using geothermal power . And the numbers back this up. In 2021, the U.S. only recycled 5 to 6% of its 40 million tons of plastic waste. These numbers are not great.
Recycling is a good branch of waste management but is not the most powerful solution. As long as we are generating so much waste, especially in poor countries, we need better fixes and faster ones as well. Cutting waste at the source is key and it is more effective than recycling at the moment.