Recycling is a daily practice for many of us, but it can be hard to know if it’s really helping the planet like we’d hope. As we toss recyclables into our curbside bins it can feel like an individual action that doesn’t yield much of an impact.
But what we do as individuals feeds into a larger system of many processes, industries, and impacts. While there are no “silver bullets” to addressing the climate crisis, recycling is an important part of managing materials more sustainably. And it’s in need of repair.
So, the short answer is, yes, recycling helps the climate. But the longer answer is, it helps the most when the system actually works. Recycling is currently facing challenges nationwide, but there are solutions, and if we can scale them up, recycling will have a bigger impact on the climate crisis.
What’s the problem?
A downturn in global recycling markets has recently brought attention to what isn’t working. The US used to sell a third of our recyclables in overseas markets, with the majority selling to companies in China. But the past few years, as many recycling programs have moved to single stream (putting all recyclables in one bin), we’ve seen a big increase in contamination (dirty items or stuff that can’t go in your curbside bin). For a long time, China accepted recyclables of any quality, but last year it released a policy putting strict contamination limits on incoming recyclables. This has caused huge disruption in the US recycling system, affecting some counties and states more severely than others.
Why fix recycling?
There are big climate benefits to keeping materials out of landfills and incinerators. In fact, landfills make up the third largest source of methane emissions in the US. A bulk of these emissions come from food waste, proving that increasing compost access is essential while we improve recycling. Trash incineration, often called “waste to energy,” emits harmful air pollutants and releases millions of tons of CO2.
But recycling is much more than just an alternative to landfills or incineration. There are substantial benefits to swapping virgin materials, extracted through mining and deforestation, with using recycled equivalents. Across a range of materials, using recycled content instead virgin content cuts energy use and emissions when manufacturing new goods.
Energy makes up the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. It’s critical that we eliminate the use of fossil fuels, shift to renewable energy sources, and maximize energy efficiency. And the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identifies using recycled materials as a top way to reduce industrial energy use.
Since recycled materials have already been processed, it takes less energy to process them again. For example, turning trees into the pulp needed to make paper products requires energy and other resources like water. But turning old paper into pulp for new products cuts down on the resources needed. And materials such as glass and aluminum can be recycled infinitely without degrading their quality. It’s even estimated that 75 percent of all aluminum ever produced in the US is still in use today.
The EPA reports that using recycled materials reduces energy and emissions, even when accounting for the transportation of materials. Using recycled glass and certain plastics instead of virgin materials can reduce environmental impacts more than 50 percent. Recycled paper and aluminum reduce environmental impacts between 70-85 percent.
And these reductions add up. Our national recycling rate, meaning the amount of materials recycled and composted from our total waste, is roughly 35 percent. This reportedly reduces 184 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, or the equivalent of taking 39 million cars off the road. And it would be even greater if the US surpassed a 50 percent recycling rate and joined world leaders like Germany and Taiwan.
Recycling is a key part of the circular economy and there are clear climate benefits to using recycled materials. It’s also true that recycling ranks 55th in Project Drawdown’s top 100 ways to cut emissions that are causing the climate crisis, with the potential to cut 2.77 gigatons of greenhouse gases.
As Project Drawdown notes, recycling remains an effective way to manage waste while addressing emissions, reducing resource extraction, and creating jobs. However, it must be part of a multi-prong approach.
There’s a big reason why the order of the 3 R’s is, “reduce, reuse, recycle.”
Reducing first allows us to stop waste before it’s even generated, making it the most environmentally preferable option. There must be an emphasis on reducing waste at the source, reusing materials, and then recycling.
Future of Recycling
To address the climate crisis, we need fundamental societal transformations. This means holding polluters accountable and replacing wasteful systems with equitable, sustainable ones. And for recycling to be an effective piece of this, emissions need to be centered in the goals of recycling companies, manufacturers, and local governments.
As Dan Leif, editor for Resource Recycling, has stated, “If recycling programs and companies want to be ready to serve those leaders of tomorrow, they need to start acting from an ‘emissions first’ perspective right now.”
In September, Republic Services became the first US recycling and waste company to have its emissions reduction target approved by the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTI), meaning it’s consistent with requirements of the Paris Agreement. The company is aiming to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 35 percent below its 2017 levels by 2030. But to advance sustainability in the recycling system itself, all companies need to set their sights on reducing direct emissions.
Changing Habits and Systems
So, does recycling help the climate? Absolutely. Should we always strive to reduce and reuse first? Without question. We can use materials more sustainably in our communities while demanding larger systemic changes to fight the climate crisis.
There are lots of opportunities to fix what isn’t working in recycling, and many people are rising to the challenge. Policymakers at federal and state levels are proposing legislation to reduce waste and update our recycling infrastructure. Organizations and individuals are holding companies accountable for the waste their products generate and urging for better use of recycled materials. And many municipalities are launching widespread recycling education campaigns (in Michigan, even raccoons are getting the word out).
Improving recycling means practicing good daily habits, like following local recycling guidelines and making sure recyclables are empty and dry before putting them in a bin. But there are many other ways to get involved in creating a more sustainable, effective recycling system.
- Recycling programs are managed locally, so your voice as a resident really matters. You can start by learning what's going on in your area. Contact your municipality's waste division and ask a few questions: What is the local recycling rate? Are there goals to improve recycling, expand compost options, and reduce contamination? And learn how community members can best get involved to drive improvements.
- To ensure that recyclables are used in a closed loop, contact companies on social media or email. You can ask if they use recycled materials and if they've consulted the industries that have to process their discarded products to ensure that they're truly recyclable or compostable.
- Urge your state representatives to push for policies at the national level that will reduce waste and support recycling and compost programs. Call their offices or attend a local town hall event to learn how they plan to address waste.