April 18, 2020
Reid Lifset, Research Scholar, Resident Fellow in Industrial Ecology, Associate Director of the Industrial Environmental Management Program, and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Industrial Ecology, walks us though the benefits—and challenges—of the way we recycle here in the United States.
What is recycling?
The term ‘recycling’ usually refers to “capturing things that are being discarded into the waste stream, reprocessing them so that they are useful as materials, and then using that material to make new products or packages,” says industrial ecologist Reid Lifset. “The term is used differently in different contexts. It usually refers to salvaging materials and making them into new materials which are then made into new products or packages, as opposed to, say, finding a new life for used products as secondhand goods.”
Lifset also points out that recycling happens on many different scales—from the household collection of paper, metal, and plastic up to the industrial context, where scrap materials generated in production are recycled back into the system.
What are the benefits of recycling?
When we see images of sprawling garbage dumps, it is easy to latch on to the idea that the main benefit of recycling is keeping things out of landfills.
However, Lifset explains that this is a misconception and finds a “life-cycle perspective” to be more accurate. A lifecycle or “cradle to grave” perspective looks at how resources are extracted from the natural environment, turned into materials and then products, used, and finally, what happens to them when we are done with them. This approach provides a more comprehensive understanding of where environmental impacts occur and can help avoid shifting impacts rather than remedying them.
“The benefits of recycling generally are not about avoiding disposal,” Lifset advises. “The real environmental payoff comes when we substitute the materials that we’ve recycled for virgin materials.”
While historically incinerators and landfills have been a significant source of pollution, Lifset says that the technology and regulations employed at U.S. facilities are strict and sophisticated, deeming the environmental impacts of disposal less significant. The most worrisome part of the lifecycle, therefore, is the disturbance of ecosystems through the mining, drilling, and forestry that comes with resource extraction and the energy used in turning those resources into materials.
“It’s all about the upstream substitution,” Lifset says. “It’s not about exactly how much we can divert from a landfill, it’s about how much we can avoid extracting new resources and processing them.”
What are the challenges of recycling in the United States?
Unlike in many other countries, recycling in the United States is not organized at the federal level, but rather at the state and municipal level. This introduces variation in what gets recycled and how, not to mention confusion among consumers.
“There’s not a whole lot of benefit from the diversity of approaches,” Lifset tells us. “What gets recycled in one community is not the same as what gets recycled in another community. In some cases, this reflects differences in the markets for the recycled materials across regions and therefore what is economic for a community to recycle, but in many cases the differences simply reflect the idiosyncratic history of choices made when recycling was implemented.”
Organizing recycling from the bottom up in smaller, decentralized facilities also means that the United States often doesn’t benefit from economies of scale.
One of the more recent challenges faced by recycling systems in the United States has been China’s 2018 policy to ban certain scrap materials and only accept recyclables with a contamination rate of 0.5% or less—a mere fraction of the contamination typically found in American recyclables.
Lifset explains that China’s actions caused the price for recyclables to drop significantly. As a result, communities that have previously received a portion of revenues for sales of recyclables now have to pay to have the materials processed for sale to industrial users.
Due to these policies, Lifset says that some communities without access to profitable domestic markets have halted their recycling program altogether.
What innovations are shaping the future of recycling?
When it comes to improving our inefficient recycling landscape, Lifset notes technological improvements as well as policy approaches that have started to gain traction.
For the short term, investors have started to come to the United States to put money into facilities that can process more contaminated recyclables to turn them into materials that China will actually be interested in purchasing.
Lifset also explains that around the world—and increasingly in several U.S. states—there is a push for extender producer responsibility (EPR) legislation.
“With EPR, producers of products or packages become responsible for managing them when they become waste,” Lifset says, adding that it provides a new source of funding to make the recycling system sustainable over time.
How can individuals improve the current recycling system?
If you’re looking to do your part, Lifset recommends avoiding “wish-cycling” – a habit where individuals hope something can be recycled, place it in their recycling bin, and end up wreaking havoc in municipal recycling infrastructure.
“It causes a lot of trouble in the actual operations of the system when people try to recycle the wrong things or material with high levels of contamination,” Lifset says. “It gums up the machinery, increases time and costs, and can make things uneconomic.”
Until recycling is radically transformed, for Lifset, the best thing that individuals can do is simple: “Pay attention to the instructions from your local communities.”
For those in and around New Haven, an additional resource is the State of Connecticut’s recycling site and widget. It allows you to enter an item—such as a pizza box or a bottle top—and learn whether to recycle it or not.
What is Yale Doing?
Yale supports the State of Connecticut’s goal of diverting (reducing, reusing, and recycling) 60% of waste by the year 2024. Recycling at Yale is single-stream, meaning that rigid plastics, metals, paper and cardboard, and glass all go into one bin. The materials are collected by university recycling trucks, brought to a transfer station, and sent to a material recovery facility where they are sorted and sent to industry for recycling. Yale’s other waste is sent to Wheelabrator, a waste-to-energy facility in Bridgeport.