The truth about recycling, according to the Economist

by Stephen Tall on June 12, 2007

One of the questions that’s – quite reasonably – asked by recycling-sceptics is: prove it’s more environmentally friendly to recycle than to throw away, given the respective consumption of energy in both processes.

So I was particularly interested in a long feature in this week’s Economist, The truth about recycling. It’s worth reading in full, but I thought I’d fillet it a bit… First, here comes the science:

… the Technical University of Denmark and the Danish Topic Centre on Waste conduct[ed] a review of 55 life-cycle analyses, all of which were selected because of their rigorous methodology. The researchers then looked at more than 200 scenarios, comparing the impact of recycling with that of burying or burning particular types of waste material. They found that in 83% of all scenarios that included recycling, it was indeed better for the environment.

Based on this study, WRAP [the Waste & Resources Action Programme, a non-profit British recycling company] calculated that Britain’s recycling efforts reduce its carbon-dioxide emissions by 10m-15m tonnes per year. That is equivalent to a 10% reduction in Britain’s annual carbon-dioxide emissions from transport, or roughly equivalent to taking 3.5m cars off the roads.

The question then to be asked is: if it’s worthwhile doing, is this something which can be supported by the market? (Ie, is there a profit which will enable a company to benefit society while benefiting its shareholders.) The answer appears to be: no.

… most kerbside recycling programmes are not financially self-sustaining. The cost of collecting, transporting and sorting materials generally exceeds the revenues generated by selling the recyclables, and is also greater than the disposal costs. Exceptions do exist … largely near ports in dense urban areas that charge high fees for landfill disposal and enjoy good market conditions for the sale of recyclables.

So, we have here a system which reduces Britain’s carbon dioxide emissions, but which cannot turn a profit – something I guess most of us would regard as market failure, and, therefore, a candidate for government action.

Then there’s the question of China – does all our hard recycling work simply end up in Chinese landfill? This seems harder to assess. On the one hand,

Pieter van Beukering, an economist who has studied the trade of waste paper to India and waste plastics to China: “as soon as somebody is paying for the material, you bet it will be recycled.” In fact, Dr van Beukering argues that by importing waste materials, recycling firms in developing countries are able to build larger factories and achieve economies of scale, recycling materials more efficiently and at lower environmental cost. He has witnessed as much in India, he says, where dozens of inefficient, polluting paper mills near Mumbai were transformed into a smaller number of far more productive and environmentally friendly factories within a few years.


… factories in developing nations may be less tightly regulated, and the recycling industry is no exception. China especially has been plagued by countless illegal-waste imports, many of which are processed by poor migrants in China’s coastal regions. They dismantle and recycle anything from plastic to electronic waste without any protection for themselves or the environment. The Chinese government has banned such practices, but migrant workers have spawned a mobile cottage industry that is difficult to wipe out … Because this type of industry operates largely under the radar, it is difficult to assess its overall impact. But it is clear that processing plastic and electronic waste in a crude manner releases toxic chemicals, harming people and the environment—the opposite of what recycling is supposed to achieve.

And, finally, there is a sting in the tail for the UK. Perhaps the first product many of us got used to recycling, usually at the local supermarket before kerbside collections took over, was the green bottle – this country is, after all, the biggest importer in the world of wine (1 billion litres a year):

But with only a tiny wine industry of its own, there is little demand for the resulting glass. Instead what is needed is clear glass, which is turned into bottles for spirits, and often exported to other countries. As a result, says Andy Dawe, WRAP’s glass-technology manager, Britain is in the “peculiar situation” of having more green glass than it has production capacity for. Britain’s bottle-makers already use as much recycled green glass as they can in their furnaces to produce new bottles. So some of the surplus glass is down-cycled into construction aggregates or sand for filtration systems. But WRAP’s own analysis reveals that the energy savings for both appear to be “marginal or even disadvantageous”.

But as the success of recycling in this country is measured by the Government not by the energy saved but by the total tonnage of recylables collected there is a perverse incentive for local councils to continue to invest in bottle recycling!