Close this search box.

Some Inconvenient Truths About Recycling: ‘Much of (recycled items) ends up in a landfill’

Environment: It has become an article of faith in the U.S. that recycling is a good thing. But evidence is piling up that recycling is a waste of time and money, and a bit of a fraud.

The New York Times recently reported that, unknown to most families who spend hours separating garbage into little recycling bins, much of the stuff ends up in a landfill anyway.

One big reason: China has essentially shut the door to U.S. recyclables.

The Times notes that about a third of recyclables gets shipped abroad, with China the biggest importer. But starting this year, China imposed strict rules on what it will accept, effectively banning most of it. That, the Times reports, has forced many recycling companies who can’t find other takers to dump recyclables into landfills.

One company, Oregon’s Rogue Disposal and Recycling, sent “all its recycling to landfills for the first few months of the year,” the Times reports.

Bloomberg says Massachusetts has issued dozens of landfill waivers so recyclable material can be dumped in them. The Florida Sun Sentinel reports that in Broward County, Fla., up to 30% of the stuff residents put in recycling bins ends up in landfills.

Worse, some local officials aren’t telling residents this for fear that they will give up on recycling altogether.

Even without China’s recycling wall, plenty of “recyclables” end up in landfills, in part because of “single stream” recycling. That’s where residents can put everything in the same bin — a switch designed to encourage more recycling. But it results in more stuff that can’t be recycled because it’s “contaminated.” One study found that about 30% of plastic collected in these “single stream” bins can’t be recycled.

In addition, the market for recyclable materials has collapsed as supply increases and demand subsides. Manufacturers use less material, recycled or otherwise, to make things like bottles and cans. And lower oil prices make it more economical to make products fresh, rather than from scraps.

As a result, prices for paper, plastic, glass and scrap aluminum have plunged. In some cases to zero.

Better for the Environment?

But this isn’t even the worst of it. As John Tierney explained in an exhaustive analysis of recycling programs, also published by the New York Times, recycling is not only costly, but doesn’t do much to help the environment.

The claim that recycling is essential to avoid running out of landfill space is hogwash, since all the stuff Americans throw away for the next 1,000 years would fit into “one-tenth of 1% of land available for grazing,” Tierney says.

Other environmental benefits, he finds, are negligible, and come at an exceedingly high price. Tierney notes, for example, that washing plastics before recycling them, as is the recommended practice, could end up adding to greenhouse gas emissions. And the extra trucks and processing facilities produce CO2 as well.

Since it costs far more to recycle trash than to bury it, governments are wasting money that could be more effectively spent elsewhere.

Good luck convincing people of any of this. Recycling is the new religion. And as Tierney put it, “religious rituals don’t need any practical justification.”

True enough. But then again, recyclers have no business enforcing their beliefs on others, either.