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.
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 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.
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.