Is Recycling a Scam?

Metal and cardboard bales ready for recycling

Written by Mary Katherine Glen

If you’re into the zero waste movement, you may have heard that recycling is a scam. Before I talk more about this, I need to explain how a material recovery facility works (known as a MRF, pronounced “merf” in the waste management industry). In a MRF, workers separate recyclable materials based on their type. They then process the materials into bales to sell to recycling facilities.

I know of a MRF that accepts Styrofoam from one of the municipalities that it processes material from. But nobody wants to buy the Styrofoam. So after sorting, this material ends up dumped in a landfill! The municipality worried that if it told residents to stop recycling Styrofoam and then the MRF found a market for it later on, it would have to go back and tell residents to start recycling it again. The municipality believed that this would create confusion and possibly anger among residents. But it does plan to tell residents to stop recycling it soon, since there really is no market for it.

bales of recyclable materials
Bales of material ready for recycling

A grey area

So is recycling a scam? It turns out that there is some nuance here, and it depends on the kind of material you’re talking about. Metal recycling is not a scam and has clear benefits. Mining for new metals causes much more environmental damage than recycling existing metals. And unlike some other materials, municipalities can receive money for bales of aluminum and steel. Incinerators recover metals and sell them as well. I visited an incinerator recently that recovers $650,000 worth of metals every year (modern incinerators typically recover metals). So the bottom line here is that metal recycling is very important and should continue.

But for other materials, things get a bit more complicated. Some kinds of plastic truly don’t have market value. In fact, usually only #1 plastic (polyethylene terephthalate aka PET) and #2 plastic (high density polyethylene aka HDPE) have value. Plastics #3, #4, #5, #6 and #7 are referred to as “mixed plastics” and typically don’t have market value. This includes plastic bags. I was surprised when I learned that #5 plastic (polypropylene) is not a desirable material. A lot of food packaging is made from this material, such as yogurt containers and margarine tubs. (Go here to make yogurt from scratch.)

Paper recycling

Paper is also a tricky material. China used to import a lot of Canadian and American paper bales and no longer does. I know that Mountain View, California where my mom lives will not accept paper boxes from refrigerated or frozen foods in the paper recycling since they’re treated to be moisture proof. Mountain View also won’t accept egg cartons in the paper recycling. However, some municipalities accept paper in their organics program. You can also compost paper in your backyard compost.

Dirty paper is also not accepted for recycling. A lot of people think that pizza boxes are recyclable, but since they’re so often dirty this is actually not true. The clean parts are recyclable, but greasy parts with bits of cheese and food on them will just contaminate other materials if put into the recycling. Contamination can make materials worthless.

Some people think that if they put dirty items in the recycling that they will just get cleaned later on. But this is actually a big misconception. Dirty materials are pulled off of the line and landfilled. They can also contaminate the things around them. A little bit of residue won’t cause problems, but if a ketchup bottle still contains ketchup then it is not recyclable.

Recycling glass

Even glass is often a problem. It can break when it is dumped into recycling trucks and onto the tipping floor at a MRF. A lot of MRFs actually sell broken glass for sandblasting, rather than to a glass factory. Some municipalities have stopped accepting glass altogether. If you’re hoarding glass jars like my mom does you’re probably doing your MRF a favour. But when recycled glass actually makes it to a glass factory, it has environmental benefits since it does not need to be heated to as high of a temperature as sand does (glass is made from sand).

So recycling certainly can be a scam. If a MRF can’t find an end market and bales are piling up and crowding the facility, those bales eventually have to be landfilled or incinerated. If your plastic bag ends up in a bale that goes to the dump, I’d call that a scam. But it isn’t the MRF’s fault or the municipality’s fault. These entities are burdened with the task of managing all kinds of materials that they had no say in creating.

If you really want to know if recycling is a scam where you live, you’ll have to go to the MRF and see how things work. They might be selling some materials that they are collecting and being forced to dump others. There is so much being produced that our systems can’t feasibly reabsorb. The key thing to remember is that putting an item in the recycling bin does not guarantee that that item will find an end market.

A ton of processes go on that we usually don’t see with our own eyes and that we usually don’t think about. Putting an item in the bin feels like the end for us, but for that item, the journey is far from over.

Mary Katherine Glen graduated from the University of Guelph with a degree in Environmental Governance and now attends Fleming College for a post-graduate certificate program in waste management.

16 Replies to “Is Recycling a Scam?”

  1. Everyone should read this! We all need better e recycling Guidelines. I shudder at the thought of all the water wasted to clean plastic items that end up in a landfill. Ugh! Thank you.

  2. Nothing beats consuming less.

    It’s hard to get that in a system geared toward growth and externalizing costs, increasing efficiency (such as recycling) increases total waste, but when you get it, you see that we’ve been doing that for centuries and it’s what produced our waste-filled world.

    Changing the system’s goals from growth to enjoying what you have and from externalizing costs to stewardship and taking responsibility for how your behavior affects others will reduce total waste.

    1. Recycling is not a scam,but a reality n a necessity.Generation of waste is a societal requirement with constant urbanisation n industrialisation globally.Waste is a business n a resource.Materials which one comes across in our activities as waste include paper cardboard,glass ,metals n plastics in packaging applications out of necessity.There is nothing like zero waste ,.Generators of waste hold themselves responsible in managing n disposal of waste with the guidance of established guidelines….
      O P Ratra, India, M: 091-9312285859

  3. Andrea Fleiner says: Reply

    In Switzerland glass gets recycled differently. We have big metal containers, on the front the are holes into which the glass gets thrown into. White hole for clear glass, brown hole for brown wine bottles, green hole for green glass.
    Only glass no ceramic. When throwing the glass into the collection bin, the glass jar, bottle… is broken – which makes it easier to melt it. Because the shards are separated by color, noting disturbs the recycling facility.
    Just an idea. The collection containers are located in central places, like community centers and sometimes for glass also close to supermarkets.

  4. This is such a complicated issue. I remember cleaning house for a lady in San Francisco, who basically recycled nothing (that was my job, in the end). She worked for tech companies who sent her on global missions, and everywhere she went the recycling options were so different that she just gave up trying to remember them all. And it’s real. I live in San Rafael, CA, which has a pretty awesome recycling effort. But go to New Orleans, and whoa. They take plastics of all kinds, but not glass, which is a little bit crazy, given how easy that is to recycle. And glass breaks way before it gets to the MRF (in my bin, even, or before that! And wait, tempered glass, such as pyrex or canning jars, cannot be recycled. ugh). Andrea Fleiner, above in the comments, is correct about Europe in general, where people separate different colors of glass, as well as other recyclables – so much more of a priority is recognized there, where space is so limited, where people live close against each other for centuries. What would you rather have, land for living, or land for “landfill”?) Personally, I’m going with consuming less, growing more of my own food, repairing, re-using, and sharing what I have. Also, I evangelize when I think it will fall on open ears.

  5. In our town, there is a plastic furniture maker which designs and makes picnic furniture as well as pieces for schools. They take #2 and #5 plastics for the furniture. They will pay you for it, but often most people just send the contribution to the registered charity or educational institution. It is nice to see the results of our effort around town and in the schools.

  6. Thank you for this post..I can see why people don’t recycle it is such a minefield…Much more education all round is required..Sweden have it sorted they have zero recycling ang take it from outside Sweden to keep their plants running…:)

  7. practicelifenotjustmedicine says: Reply

    Mary Katherine, Thank you for such an educational post. Reducing is obviously step 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 but every now and then something sneaks in. Do you know if recycling drop offs are more efficient and effective at recycling? Terracycle, styrofoam drop offs, etc. Or am I just wasting my time, physical space storing such items until I have collected enough of it, and mental space? Thanks!

  8. This is so eye opening and also sad. I cant believe this and here I was so proud that I reduced my waste only to see that I’ve relied to much on recycling. Thank you for writing this

  9. This was a very interesting read, it gave me a reminder for some things and an eye opener for others. Especially styrofoam which from what I have seen has been a very confusing topic when it comes to recycling.

  10. Recycling is not a Scam, certainly, post consumer plastic waste recycling not.Recycling of plastic waste is a business n a resource,provide livelihood to informal sector….waste pickers/collectors,waste collection agencies n recyclers,all over the world including India,South Africa ,Indonesia Malaysia, Phillipines,Japan China,UK,US Switzerland ,South Korea ,n the like.You have very appropriately compared the operational limitations of glass recycling.Those who promote against the recycling(of plastic waste) are:” Scamsters “,not the recycling……O P Ratra India,28 July,2020.

  11. I have already posted my comments,where have they disappeared ?….O P Ratra

  12. Recycling option I.e recovering back waste matetials is a necessity for materials which are recyclable,these include paper,glass,cardboard, n plastics.Plastic waste generation is societal requirement, a business n resource,which provide livelihood to waste pickers in the informal sector in developing countries.Calling recycling a “scam appears to be a sponsored slogan of the Activists n Environment Groups which must be stopped forthwith for the welfare of the Society at large n humanity….O P Ratra, India

  13. This is really enlightening. I always wondered about the glass – especially being in a condo – as it definitely breaks when you need to throw it down the chute!
    Thanks so much for sharing.

  14. Dillon Rhoads says: Reply

    As a MRF Operations Manager, I have to applaud and downright thank you for this article. You were very accurate while remaining hopeful. One thing to mention here though: just because a facility found someone to buy that bale of mixed ridgid plastic or whatever doesnt mean it was actually recycled into anything at all. Many of our waste products end up littering and cluttering incredibly beautiful countries all over the world. In places where governments do not regulate well, these insidious individuals will purchase bales for next to nothing, use what they need and discard the rest.. often in the street. For the businesses in other more 3rd world countries thT really do use what they purchase, generally there are little if any environmental regulations for the manufacturing of their products. Just because you dropped that water bottle in the correct bin and it was correctly sorted, baled and sold off to some far away land doesnt mean the environment is better for it. We need to put the onus on these manufacturers to deal with these products and find real solutions to these issues, because plastic recycling is not it. Aluminum tin and glass could be used for well over 90% of all plastic containers out there. We need to take the blame and responsibility for our purchase of the product, yes. However the root cause of the issue is the manufacturer putting it there in the first place. California regulates wood stoves…but won’t require Pepsi and Coke to do anything about their crap packaging that pollutes and litters the entire world. The oil industries have bought and paid for politicians on every side of the aisle to be on their side and perpetuate their nonsense about recycling. We’ve all been duped. Make them take responsibility. Call your Reps.

  15. How do you feel about article by NPR about big oil knowing recycling would be complicated and not the answer to the pollution problem while they marketed it as the opposite?

    I love that you’ve made the point that it’s not fault of the facilities doing the recycling. It’s easy to point the blame at others. Great post!

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