State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


The Necessity of Recycling

In 2017 China stopped accepting recycled waste from the United States, and in response, many American cities ended their recycling programs. Even before China acted, here in New York City, then-Mayor Mike Bloomberg substantially reduced recycling shortly after taking office, although he restored it later as part of his path-breaking sustainability plan. During the height of the Covid crisis, Bill DeBlasio suspended a very promising food waste recycling program that had already reached 500,000 city residents. When the budget gets tight, recycling is an easy target. The financial problem with recycling is the volatility of the market for recycled waste and the cost of separate pick-ups for recycled and “regular” waste.

Some states, such as Maine, are experimenting with “producer responsibility” taxes that charge manufacturers a fee that covers the cost of recycling the goods they manufacture. This helps local governments pay the cost of recycling.  As the New York Times Winston Choi-Schagrin reported recently:

“Maine has implemented a new law that could transform the way packaging is recycled by requiring manufacturers, rather than taxpayers, to cover the cost. Nearly a dozen states have been considering similar regulations and Oregon is about to sign its own version in coming weeks…Essentially, these programs work by charging producers a fee based on a number of factors, including the tonnage of packaging they put on the market. Those fees are typically paid into a producer responsibility organization, a nonprofit group contracted and audited by the state. It reimburses municipal governments for their recycling operations with the fees collected from producers. Nearly all European Union member states, as well as Japan, South Korea and five Canadian provinces, have laws like these and they have seen their recycling rates soar and their collection programs remain resilient, even in the face of a collapse in the global recycling market…”

While a fee could help reduce unnecessary packaging materials and can be used to encourage biodegradable materials, another approach would be to reduce the cost of recycling. In the long run, this will be accomplished by automated waste sorting machines that can take mixed garbage and sort it for re-use. Recycling at the household level is a good educational tool that can increase public awareness of the waste that we all produce, but it is an inefficient and flawed method for separating materials for re-use. Often the recycled waste is contaminated, and the uncertain demand for recycled material has frequently led to recycled waste ending up in landfills or incinerators.

If we are to ever achieve a circular economy and something approaching zero waste, we cannot rely on current collection methods and technologies. Fortunately, advanced robotics and artificial intelligence are helping to bring about rapid advances in waste sorting technology. The capital costs of these technologies and the absence of a track record for use in the real world are obstacles to implementation, but a number of cities already use automated waste sorting technologies, and more will follow.

No waste disposal is free since both landfilling and waste-to-energy incineration costs money. If waste can be diverted to a place where the material can be reused, even if the price received for waste is zero, money is still saved by the city handling the waste. The capital and operation and maintenance costs of waste processing need to be seen within the context of the entire material production, consumption and disposal system. While automated waste sorting technology costs money, fewer waste collection pick-ups and less landfilling save money. The garbage has to go somewhere and wherever it goes, and however it gets there, government and taxpayers incur the cost. As the technology of waste sorting advances, it will improve its efficiency, effectiveness and increase its cost-effectiveness. In contrast, as land becomes scarcer, the price of landfills will only go up. The materials that cannot be reused can be burned for energy in a waste-to-energy incinerator, and the value of the energy can help pay the cost of waste processing.

While promising experiments in waste sorting are underway, the development of large-scale automated waste sorting requires additional research and development. Although waste management is an important and expensive municipal service, it is not something that elected officials like to talk about. No politician wants to be seen cutting a ribbon on a new garbage facility. The public sees the big green bags on the street awaiting pick up and assume the garbage makes its way to some sort of solid waste heaven. One company even has commercials where they tell people all they have to do to make junk disappear is point at it, and the company will make it go away. But where do they bring this “junk”? Who knows? (I’m a satisfied customer of that company, but I have no idea where they sent our stuff.) Some engineers and scientists have developed specialties in waste management, but like elected officials, many prefer to apply their brainpower to more fashionable topics. I can tell you from experience, no one thinks of municipal solid waste as a good topic for chit-chat over cocktails.

Moreover, the siting of waste management facilities is nearly always a victim of the Not in My Backyard (NIMBY) syndrome. No one wants to see and smell a garbage truck driving in front of their home unless it is picking up their own household garbage. For that reason, advances in waste management systems are difficult to fund, research, build and operate. But they are a critical building block of the sustainable city.

The population density of urban life can provide economies of scale in waste collection, processing and re-use. As material consumption increases worldwide, the waste stream will continue to grow. If more materials are not recycled, we will literally be knee-deep in garbage. A circular economy depends on recycling. The need to process rather than landfill waste has raised the cost of waste disposal. This increases the revenue stream for waste management firms and may stimulate investment in waste technology.

While it’s true that waste management contributes to climate change, climate change is only one impact of waste. Methane from landfills and the energy required to collect and treat waste contribute to climate change. As important as those impacts are, they pale in comparison to our waste system’s impact on ecology and biodiversity. Plastics and chemicals that are disposed of incorrectly can damage ecosystems. Oceans, in particular, have been saturated with plastics and other forms of non-biodegradable materials such as drugs, chemical fertilizers and insecticides. Once these enter the food chain, they are often impossible to remove. We need a waste management system that collects all trash, including litter, and sorts it for as much re-use as possible. As the energy system decarbonizes, the environmental impact of waste management should be reduced.

Producer responsibility is a useful concept for waste management. But other concepts such as consumer responsibility and collective social responsibility are also important. Garbage belongs to everyone. The solution is not to stop consuming but to change our system of waste management and our concept of garbage itself. Our waste should be seen as a resource. Food waste can be processed to create fertilizer.  Used electronics should be mined for their rare earth metals and other valuable materials. It’s like the Old-World idea of a chicken. Every part of the animal was converted to food, and nothing was discarded.  What wasn’t used initially found its way to soup, stew, and sausage. Our modern economy has been built on a linear model of production-consumption-waste. It might have made for an efficient economy, but its impact on the planet has been horrific. When I was growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s and 1960s, we had milk and eggs delivered to our doorstep- with the milk bottles collected for re-use, and the same model used for soda and seltzer. That business model and those jobs disappeared with the invention of plastic milk containers and throw-away soda bottles and cans. We need to rethink the linear business model and move toward a circular economy. Without recycling, there can be no circular economy. Without a circular economy, we cannot build environmentally sustainable cities.  Without sustainable cities, we’d better start looking for another planet.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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Nancy Anderson
2 years ago

Taking a serious look at recycling today is a worthy topic for your column. And, as an author of NYC’s Recycling Law, enacted in 1989, I try to temper my despair over its dismal track record, by keeping up with the recycling news. Struck by your observation that “Recycling at the household level is a good educational tool that can increase public awareness of the waste that we all produce, but it is an inefficient and flawed method for separating materials for re-use. Often the recycled waste is contaminated, and the uncertain demand for recycled material has frequently led to recycled waste ending up in landfills or incinerators.”

phil larocco
2 years ago

Good article. Thanks, Steve. Linking producer, consumer and societal responsibility is essential. Perhaps equally important: dividing the costs among each in a waterfall and equitable fashion: (1) producer contributions (as new legislation currently envisions) to cover embedded energy and material waste elements; (2)consumer contributions (in fees, taxes and in-kind labor)to cover additional collection, sorting and source separation costs; and, societal contribution (in taxes) to operate the public benefit waste handling and processing.

Cynthia T crenshaw
Cynthia T crenshaw
2 years ago

I’ll be using your article for class discussion in my Math for Sustainability class tomorrow. Great resource. The challenge for this course is to encourage students to find ways to be positive and optimistic. So much tough news out there for the future of the planet.