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Why Recycling Doesn't Work (thewalrus.ca)
273 points by pseudolus 11 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 216 comments

Modern recycling separation plants work pretty well. The problem is what to do with the low-value outputs.

Aluminum recycling is the big win. That sometimes pays for the rest of the operation.

You have to separate the aluminum from the ferrous metals, so pulling out the ferrous stuff with magnets doesn't add cost. Scrap steel isn't that valuable, but there's no problem selling it. Steel mills will take it all.

Pulling out glass and making it into cullet is common, but there's more glass cullet than glassmakers need. Sorting by color is possible, but adds cost. Works fine, though. There are uses for low-value mixed cullet, mostly as fill in construction, so it usually doesn't go to the landfill.

There are advanced sorters that can separate the major categories of plastics, but they're still rare. Plastic bottles can be recycled all the way back to plastic pellets for new bottles, and a huge plant near Los Angeles does this for most of Southern California. Not clear that this pays without subsidies.

Paper recycling from post-consumer waste is tough. It's mostly low quality packaging material, which can at best be recycled into lower-quality packaging material. The fibers get shorter each time around. Recycling paper from offices, and recycling newspapers, used to be a thing, but those sources are in decline.

The US recycling industry is currently struggling because China will no longer take the unsorted paper/plastic mess that used to be sent there in empty shipping containers going back. That will probably get worked out.

But recycling is not a value problem, but a survival problem. It might not be cost effective to eat, but if you don't spend X amount of your salary in it, you die, so you do it. This is the same IMHO.

Recycling is a economic-cost vs environmental-value optimization problem.

The university I studied at also has a department that analyzes renewable energies and recycling. They developed a system that does this cost-vs-value-analysis for recycling. In the end, you get a number of environmental points for every dollar you invest into recycling.

The core idea is that we have a certain budget to improve our environment. If a dollar invested in plastic recycling is 20 times less efficient than a dollar invested in glass recycling, then we should stop recycling plastic.

The results (for Switzerland): Glass and aluminum recycling works great. Battery recycling is OK, but because today's batteries contain way less toxic chemicals (like Cadmium) than they did in the 80s, it's largely an artifact from the past. They consider battery recycling good enough to keep, but wouldn't start recycling them if the infrastructure wouldn't exist right now.

Mixed plastic recycling is being hyped right now. There are companies that offer subsidized plastic bags where you can throw in all kinds of plastic. According to the study, the environmental value of recycling such mixed plastics in Switzerland is really low and should not be done, we are basically wasting our money which would be better spent on other projects that have higher value. Their summary was basically that instead of recycling plastic and burning fuel in combustion engines, we should convert oil to plastic products and then - once they have reached the end of the lifecycle - burn those in modern incineration plants. The energy gained from that can then be used to heat buildings and to power electrical cars. This way, the energy is re-used, first in a product, then in mobility.

Of course that only works if you have modern, clean incineration plants. If you burn the plastics on a pile, then the environmental value of plastic recycling skyrockets.

>. Their summary was basically that instead of recycling plastic and burning fuel in combustion engines, we should convert oil to plastic products and then - once they have reached the end of the lifecycle - burn those in modern incineration plants. The energy gained from that can then be used to heat buildings and to power electrical cars. This way, the energy is re-used, first in a product, then in mobility.

Note that this solution is so obvious what every high school chemistry student proposes as soon as they learn that plastics are made from oil and have similiar molecular structure. We just don't do it because I don't know why.

> this solution is so obvious what every high school chemistry student proposes...

At the risk of sounding flippant, "For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, obvious, and wrong". There's no guarantees that the energy arithmetic works out here. Even without the logistics of collection and transport, is cleanly burning plastic waste efficient enough to be worthwhile (cf. why it's almost unheard of to use wood to generate power)?

>cf. why it's almost unheard of to use wood to generate power

It's heard of plenty. People use wood to generate heating power for homes.

Because 100% of the oil doesn't go to fuel or plastic. There are different chemicals distilled and they have different purposes, such as making asphalt, lanolin, naptha, paraffin wax, kerosene / jet fuel, and other goodies. Maybe 40-50% of a barrel of oil at most becomes gasoline and diesel, 4% becomes plastic.

Add on top of that the difficulty in getting people to recycle plastic instead of throwing it out or littering, and you have a very inefficient supply chain for your energy production.

Those are two independent problems. On the one hand, how do we generate electricity. On the other hand, what do we do with plastic garbage.

"Burn it to generate electricity" solves the second one entirely by solving a small fraction of the first one. That is not a flaw, it just means that we still need solar panels and nuclear reactors to make up the difference.

It still gets rid of the plastic garbage -- and the fact that it's a small proportion of electricity production is a feature, because burning plastic gets it out of the landfill, but it's not exactly carbon neutral. Doing it at smaller scale, especially if it replaces that amount of power generation from coal, is more feasible than burning plastic (i.e. oil) to generate all of our electricity.

> There are different chemicals distilled and they have different purposes, such as making asphalt, lanolin, naptha, paraffin wax, kerosene / jet fuel, and other goodies. Maybe 40-50% of a barrel of oil at most becomes gasoline and diesel, 4% becomes plastic.

The distillation process can actually be tuned within a fairly broad range to produce different output products with varying degrees of efficiency.

It's also possible to make bioplastics from biomass, though hardly anybody does that because it's more expensive.

No, it's a value problem. When the resources tied up in recyclables are scarce enough from other sources, the value will go up.

When you're really hungry and there's not much food, your willingness to pay more for it increases. Same mechanism.

Ultimately we need to bake the cost of disposal into the purchase price.

I've always found it odd that the free market hawks are so against factoring the externalities of their decisions into pricing.

I think this isn't true what you say, Do you have links? I always assumed some of the free market hawks are to incorporate the externalities in the cost, e.g. selling the right to pollute.

Biggest example to me is the push to loosen regulation on the fossil fuel industry without enacting a tax that pays for mitigating the damage that burning their fuel does to the climate.

You're confusing theory with politics.

In theory the free market works when transactions are consensual, which means you can't pollute someone else's property without their permission, and they're not inclined to give it to you without due compensation.

In practice there are a lot of politicians in places where fossil fuels are a major industry, and they're pragmatists with no real principles other than wanting to get elected.

On short-term (while resources are enough), probably none of the 3Rs - Reduce, Reuse, Recycle - make sense in Capitalism, except to guarantee the long-term survival of the system itself. Most politicians already acknowledged it and they seem to prefer the (uneconomical) Recycle than the game changers Reduce and Reuse.

Surely every player in a capitalist has an incentive to reduce or reuse material in their own production, and an incentive to recycle if it is cheaper than binning it.

Producer of garbage doesn't pay the cost of disposing it (consumers do), and even the cost of garbage disposal doesn't seem to factor in larger environmental costs.

You can produce plastic without paying a cent towards cleanup of The Great Pacific garbage patch.

Survival is definitely valuable, by simply allowing you to produce value longer. I think the problem is that there is no 'long-term' factored in how we measure value.

> Survival is definitely valuable, by simply allowing you to produce value longer.

...can you please take a step back, read this again, and think about what it is that you're saying?

Economics are a tool to describe emergent behaviour in societies. “Value” is, in this context, just a word we use as a tool to model reality. We see reality as a river of efforts, and cause and effect relationships eddying up and down. We use words like “value” and “incentive” to try and label those existing flows. But reality doesn’t care about economics. It just is. We try to understand only so we can align our mental models with reality better, which then enables us to steer our society towards a more desirable stream, hopefully leading towards a more desirable outcome.

This is always implicit when speaking about economics. Don’t attach too much meaning to “value” , or “purpose” , or any of those models. They’re just describing a model of reality, not prescribing it.

TLDR: “value” in economics != “value” in Buddhism.

Why do you think you’re correct? When everyone learned that their shoes were made by slave labor, shoe companies made drastic changes away from using slave labor. People are generally aware of the externalities of their economic decisions, they just don’t often line up with the most vocal environmental voices.

I don't know. Can you ?

To me the problem is keeping volume down (lessen packaging, make things last longer, lessen fads or in-fashion), and minimize toxicity (heavy metals, leach prone chemicals, etc.) Aluminum, wood, or steel accumulating in landfills isn’t that detrimental. Batteries, household and industrial chemicals are bad.

packaging imo is THE WORST

i am in japan, so maybe it’s worse (here i can see it because we sort everything) but the amount of plastic garbage just from buy the essentials (soap, tea/coffee, cooking oil etc) and cardboard for everything is absolutely insane

a lot of things and packaging in stores is just to compel you to buy it (sturdiness, printed imagery, size etc), with little to do with the size of the product itself, and this just creates inordinate amounts of garbage... i am always amazed at this

the other thing is, when i buy online, i notice almost always the packaging is same as in-store, meaning more waste... i have already bought it, i don’t need enticing nice packages in that case, just bubble packaging (oh don’t get me started on that) is enough...

we really need to fix this package and wrapping waste: it’s only going to get worse as other economies (and consumerism) keep growing

[edit] spelling

So, what are the capital costs for all of this equipment, and then the utility, labor and parts costs to run and maintain it, and also the costs to transport these materials to and from the processing center?

Recycling works- for high energy artefacts. Producing steel, glass, aluminium - takes enormous amounts of energy. There recycling is common place.

The real trouble is - plastic packaging, especially if the food contained went to a bio-methan operation first. The packaged food is shredded and added to the fermenter- this is THE topsoil contamination source of microplastics.

Its really tough to get plastic seperated cost effective.

In many (most?) parts of Japan, people are trained to separate plastics before they’re discarded. I remember thinking how crazy it was to wash and air dry plastic trash like juice bottles or meat packaging before tossing it. In my city, there were something like ten separate trash collection types and every household was tasked with maintaining separation along a complex set of rules assigned to them when they move in. These rules are enforced by a system of fines, of course, but more importantly there are a cadre of old folks who will shame the hell out of you if you try to bend the rules.

I don't really understand why we're making high energy requirement artefacts and then throwing them away. Why don't we have reuse at all across the food supply chain (in the UK at least)?

I mean things like large barrels of cooking oil for take-away restaurants don't even get reused - why wouldn't they just collect, clean and refill them?

We get large "food grade" buckets for ceramics supplies: those buckets cost several pounds each to buy wholesale, they could easily be reused but there's no system to do that: I assume because there's no [cost] incentive.

Single use packaging needs some heavy fines to regulate it.

Presumably it costs more to collect, clean, sort/organize, and deliver to the point of next filling with enough certainty of availability. (No oil producer wants their line shut down because they’re short of barrels.)

Fines won't promote reuse by the supplier much, because reuse is expensive, they will promote reduction -- of both the buckets and the valuable contents of those buckets.

When buckets are expensive - large industrial containers, they are in fact protected by deposit and recipients of shipments are obligated to return the containers to the supplier.

We directly consume quite a lot more energy than we discard in manufactured products. I think what it comes down to is that we collectively don't actually care.

> China will no longer take the unsorted paper/plastic mess that used to be sent there in empty shipping containers going back. That will probably get worked out.

China is so strict about recycling that people who don't know that an umbrella or old shoes don't belong in a blue bin get kicked out of the country, forced to live in condos in Vancouver, Canada.

The NYT has had several decent articles on this over the years:





Ask yourself: how does recycling help the environment? It doesn't. Recycling arose out of 1980s landfill anxiety but we have plenty of space, what we don't have are plenty of climates. All the money wasted on making us feel better by recycling could be far better spent reducing carbon emissions.

What a waste of tax dollars, especially now that most cities and counties just throw out recycling anyway.

John Tierney’s writing was roundly, soundly debunked 20 years ago. It’s amazing to me that it continues to do damage.



> Recycling arose out of 1980’s landfill anxiety

That’s the first anti-recycling myth addressed above. It sure seems like this argument is being recycled.

> we have plenty of space,

Anti-recycling myth #3...

> What a waste of tax dollars

Garbage disposal is also funded by taxes. Whatever, fewer dollars are spent on both garbage and recycling combined than are lost in the margins of military spending. If you really cared about taxes at all, you’d know recycling is irrelevant.

The first link you posted an article from over 25 years ago from an organization that denies human caused climate change and prioritizes science that makes their donors happy. I would take it with a grain of salt.

> an article from over 25 years ago

It’s a direct response to an even older article the parent comment posted that preceded it. BTW, May 2019 - June 1996 is just less than 23 years.

> from an organization that denies humans caused climate change

The Environmental Defense Fund denies human factors? I think you’re mistaken. Can you please provide a source for that claim? Or are you talking about Heartland... did you confuse the hosting web site with the authors?

EDF was founded to ban DDT, widely but controversially regarded as one of the worst mistakes of environmentalism.

> EDF was founded to bad DDT

Right, thanks, yes EDF was founded on the very idea of human factors. I guess @landon32’s comment mistook the URL I used for the source of the information. I can’t find the full article on the EDF site, just a shortened version. Or maybe that comment was intentionally trying to cast doubt by association?

Is the history of DDT relevant to the recycling debate, or are you hoping to cast doubt by association?

> widely but controversially regarded as one of the worst mistakes of environmentalism.

“the United States ban on DDT is a major factor in the comeback of the bald eagle (the national bird of the United States) and the peregrine falcon from near-extinction in the contiguous United States.”


I like bald eagles. And I don’t want DDT used on my food. Do you??

I’d never heard the idea that banning DDT is a mistake. I’m trying to find some reputable sources for the claim that this is widely believed. The Wikipedia article doesn’t exactly back up that claim, so do you want to provide some?

“A few people and groups have argued that limitations on DDT use for public health purposes have caused unnecessary morbidity and mortality from vector-borne diseases”


I think you might be overemphasising the view of a rather small minority there.

I found these rebuttals well argued, well supported, and convincing. Thank you for digging them up.


"Joseph J. Romm has written that Tierney is one of the "influential but misinformed" skeptics who have helped prevent the U.S. from taking action on climate change. ..."


Back in the day of dial-up BBSes, our offline mail readers had "twit filters". Precursor to today's ad blockers.

Gods I miss that functionality.

I keep day dreaming about what today's twit filter might look like. Maybe a RSS reader.

Re: Space. From the PDF:

>Anti-recycling myth #3: Landfill space is cheap and abundant.

> Fact: Landfill space is a commodity, priced according to supply and demand. The majority of the growth of recycling in the United States has occurred in populated regions where landfills are expensive relative to the U.S. average.

I stared at this for a while trying to get at the heart of the issue. The response isn't "no, there isn't space." More like, market forces show that it isn't cheaper than recycling.

Perhaps the argument use to be "why bother recycling at all if creating new is cheaper"?

I think it's currently a de facto non-issue: Things that are worth recycling are being recycled, and things that aren't are going to be dumped/burned.

> What a waste of tax dollars

The better point is we can spend the dollars more effectively to improve the environment.

The military / military spending has nothing to do with it.

Recycling already is a more effective expenditure than landfill. If there are even better ways, please contribute them to the discussion!

> military spending has nothing to do with it.

That’s right. Military spending is simply what one should be concerned about if they are worried about taxes. Military spending is greater than 50% of all tax expenditure in the US. Waste management is such a small fraction, it’s in the noise, far below military, and other things like roads and education.

> Recycling already is a more effective expenditure than landfill.

There are some materials where there is a net economic benefit to recycling, such as aluminum and to a lesser extent steel and glass.

There are also materials where it’s a net cost (in excess of landfill dumping fees) to recycle the material, such as many plastics. If we are paying in aggregate millions of dollars to recycle this material, it makes sense to ask could those dollars be put to better use.

Also worth noting I don’t pay for garbage and refuse through my local taxes, I have a private service which I pay to pickup my trash. Many towns are moving to this model so that residents who make less trash can pay less.

Military spending is 50% of “discretionary” spending, but about 1/6th of total spending. “Discretionary” means spending appropriated each year, versus spending which is based on existing laws and not the annual budget. I’m sure there’s many ways that money could be better spent as well, but it doesn’t change the fact that we should invest efficiently in environmental protection.

First, thanks for the reply. What I like about the discussion, even when I disagree, is that I think you and everyone here are truly pro-conservation as a goal and ideal, both economically and environmentally. We all want the same thing, less waste, there are just minor differences of opinion about how to get there.

What I don’t like about the article posted and about Tierney’s quite misguided writing is the negative headlines that immediately give the reader the impression that inaction is better than action. There are many cherry-picked statistics being used to paint a narrative that is more or less the opposite of truth, at least in Tierney’s work. I encourage you to read it and the rebuttals I posted and make up your own mind.

> There are some materials where there is a net economic benefit to recycling

Personally speaking, money is not what I care about. Recycling’s primary goals are to stop using non-renewables and stop toxic pollution and damage to the environment, not to be cheaper than being lazy. I don’t care if it costs more to value the environment, I want clean air and water, forever. I realize it’s going to take strong economic arguments to get us all moving, and I’m in no way in favor of wasting money, but in terms of priorities and the way we evaluate what’s worth doing, I believe waiting for clear and undeniable and unarguable economic benefit is probably a mistake.

I furthermore think that cost-benefit analysis of environmental factors is a deeply flawed idea. By reducing things to dollars, we’re losing our actual values. This study examined previous environmental cost-benefit analyses, and concluded they were wrong by orders of magnitude:


I think in a hundred or two hundred years if we run out of petroleum, if we need expensive air and water filters in order to survive, our great great grandchildren might look back and realize how pathetic and petty the idea was that we decided we needed to make valuing the earth cheaper than screwing it up before we were willing to budge.

I agree with everything you are saying. I just want to be clear I'm not saying we should only do things that protect the environment if they don't have a net economic cost.

i mean, there are a lot of basic environmental protective measures which actually save money too. Any time you can make something more efficient there might be upfront capex / R&D to get there, but the value inherent in the efficiency pays you back over time. E.g. airplane engines. But that's not my point.

If we are going to ask people to spend $X/day to improve their environment, it's possible that some of those hours and dollars should go toward the costs of recycling. But maybe not all $10 should go there. We should ask people to spend their time and money in the ways which will be most productive toward helping the environment.

It may be that recycling is the best bang for the buck because you can do it without leaving your home, it feels akin to doing a daily household chore rather than some special big task I have to go prepare for and schedule, and trying to get someone to do the equivalent amount of work at the equivalent cost (e.g. 10 hours and $250 a year) is never going to happen at the scale that we can get households participating in recycling.

For example, we should be increasing the cost of things to cover their environmental impact. Products should get cheaper to sell if they last longer or have a smaller environmental footprint. Most particularly this should tax environmentally unfriendly packaging, since the packaging is the first to be discarded. This aligns incentives.

military spending is greater than 50% of discretionary spending, which is 29% of the budget iirc. Which means military spending is around 15-16% of total spending.

There is an energy saving component to recycling. Aluminum for example takes a tremendous amount of power to produce and recycling reduces that.

Recycling makes different amounts of sense depending on the material. I suspect that a fair amount of material mined is subsidized by different governments (natural resource extraction at least in the us often takes place on leased government land).

I did some landfill design engineering in a previous career. while there is lots of space sometimes it’s far away, so there is trucking waste around. Plus landfills despite their liners and clay layers can leak nasty stuff into the groundwater.

You pay for what you put in the landfill by weight, so reducing waste can save municipalities money.

> There is an energy saving component to recycling. Aluminum for example takes a tremendous amount of power to produce and recycling reduces that.

Yes, that’s why aluminium is recycled everywhere. Glass, on the other hand, is more of a “What the hell do we do with this?” situation because making glass from sand is cheap and doesn’t have the quality control issues of making it from old glass. That’s why recycled glass goes to making gravel, decorative or not, mostly.

Transport is cheap and most recycling makes no economic sense and wouldn’t even with a carbon tax. Chemical feedstock is cheap, wood is cheap, metals are cheap. That covers plastics, paper and manufactured goods. Recycling is a religious impulse, not an economic one.

I like the German solution for dealing with glass bottles: rather than recycling, they are made to be washed and reused.

You pay a deposit when you buy a bottle of tasty beverage, and some time later, can take those bottles back to the grocery store. There, you put your used bottles into a machine which scans each bottle, and gives you an aggregate receipt for all of the bottles you returned, which you can then use to buy goods at that store.

It's a great system for encouraging reuse, and we should be doing this in the US.

We used to do this extensively in Norway, even with plastic bottles. But it has recently been shut down.

We've moved to use more aluminum and thinner plastic bottles, because they can be crushed at the recycling point (look up Tomra recycling machines), making it much more space efficient. Remember that the trucks transporting the bottles back to the plant have their emissions as well (for now at least). Transporting uncrushed empty bottles is inefficient too.

This seems to be much better on multiple levels. It seems that many more smaller companies are on board with this recycling scheme than the re-use scheme, since re-use means that ever producer of bottled items have to agree on a very limited set of bottle sizes, and be able to handle all the logistics of accepting those bottles back.

The recycling of plastic bottles in Norway is one of the most successful recycling schemes for plastic, since you get a stream of plastics of a single type. Most other recycling of plastic is worthless because you get a mix of different plastics.

>aluminum and thinner plastic bottles [...] can be crushed

These schemes are common in Germany as well, often side by side with the glass bottles. But cans really only come in single serving sizes, and some people are wary about plastic bottles.

I just moved to germany and routinely people in my local super market come with a few dozen empty plastic bottle for the crusher, maybe it is a regional thing (saarland here)

> and some people are wary about plastic bottles

Are people worried about potential health effects of plastic leaching into the contents, or something else?

Yes, originally mostly concerns about Bisphenol A [1], later also it's substitutes. That, plus the more recent reports about microplastic pollution [2].

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bisphenol_A#Health_effects

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microplastics

While I like it too, it has some issues in practice, the biggest being that it works best with standardization: E.g. there's a few common types of beer bottle, and the idea is that you can ship bottles to whatever is the closest brewery that needs bottles and they can use them. That of course breaks down if breweries do their own, custom bottles, because now you have to filter those out and ship them to their specific brewery, which a) increases processing effort and b) means shipping empty bottles over longer distances (and in the US, the distances would potentially be way larger than in Germany).

Does the world really need custom bottles though? At some points society should put its foot down and say that corporations should not be able to do anything they want without regard to the environment.

It's also a great example of a coordination problem: while I'm sure no company wants to stick its neck out to become the boring bottle company, they would benefit if all companies had to standardise on bottle shapes.

If I remember correctly it was the other way around here: Basically everyone used the same bottle shapes and it worked fine, and then companies started going "hey, our branding people would really like a fancy bottle for this new product", and the setup of the entire return network wasn't done in a way that strongly-enough discouraged that. (Also a scale thing: a large brewery can afford the one-time expense of buying a big machine that can sort through tons of bottles by shape, smaller ones need to do it by hand or with simpler equipment)

Standardizing containers (not just bottles) brings a number of improvements not just for recycling but for general logistics. It's one of those things that no one is large enough to implement on their own but once it's done everyone benefits.

>everyone benefits //

I'd expect it's detrimental to incumbents (who hold the most market power and so can block it).

It's worth considering how the entire supply chain used to work.

In days of yore, soft drink bottling plants were in every small town. They were locally owned, were good citizens and local suppliers of jobs, sponsored sports teams.

Distributors used to pick up bottles sorted for their bottlers and then put them in a great big bottle yard for further hand sorting (don't ask me how I know).

Beer, while they mostly used brown bottles (Miller for one excepted), also was much more locally sourced although not as locally.

In the meantime, there was huge consolidation in beer manufacturing, huge consolidation in distribution (with the inevitable forced closure of family-owned businesses, not dissimilar to car dealerships), similar consolidation in soft drink manufacture. The whole underlying network changed in the interest of efficiency/profit maximization for the corporate motherships.

tl;dr You simply can't just declare reuse of bottles and be done with it. There's a whole ecosystem.

The catch with glass bottles is that they are quite heavy compared to plastic bottles and you have to ship a lot of empty volume around when returning them to be washed and filled.

I remember that there was a brief discussion once that moving the empty glass bottles might be so energy inefficient that using recyclable plastic bottles would make more sense. These kinds of soft plastic bottles are crushed immediately after taken in by the machine and thus take up much less volume on their return trip (fewer trucks with better loads). I unfortunately don't know if this claim was finally determined to be true or false.

The real reason is marketing. Otherwise stores would just have huge tubs of different goods, and you'd fill a standard size bottle/jar, then take the goods away, then bring those standardised containers back and keep doing that until the containers wear out. If you're wealthier, the store would do the washing and refilling.

French supermarkets used to do that with the cheap wine. You used to get "container" or "tub" stores in the 80s (UK) that you could buy loose product and put in your own containers.

This, to me seems a better, more responsible way to do things but it means reducing the numbers of products (only 3 types of extra-virgin olive oil, how will we survive!) and removing marketing opportunities like package labelling and shape. Companies couldn't just reduce the volume of a good in a packet when prices go up nor redesign the label to hide what is [not] inside.

It would be interesting to see how companies would innovate differentiation if, for example, all mobile phones came in a fixed size/shape box that couldn't use mixed media, could only use environmentally friendly dyes in the printing.

I would be generally in favor of reusable packaging for comsumables (not just food, but also soap, detergents, ...). Also, I often stare into supermarket shelves in dismay because some perishable items are sold in fixed container sizes far bigger than what I can comsume before it spoils.

But I don't get why you would have to reduce the variety of product brands to get there. Care to elaborate?

Edit: I have seen repeated news of tub stores opening up in Germany. They are very few and far inbetween, but the the that exist seem to do reasonably well.

> I would be generally in favor of reusable packaging for comsumables (not just food, but also soap, detergents, ...).

There's an effort to do this by TerraCycle and some big name corporate partners like PepsiCo, Unilever, Proctor & Gamble, etc.


> I have seen repeated news of tub stores opening up in Germany. They are very few and far inbetween

Quite common in Canada, eg: http://www.bulkbarn.ca

I do wish they'd catch on more in Europe.

Makes sense until you look at the energy intensity of plastic bottle recycling. The most surprising part is discovering the washing stage of recycling is far more intense than for reuse. It's trying to wash and agitate the glue, ink and labels from the outside, not just dried remnants of drink or food.

A truck has to go back to the factory with plastic pellets, and to collect the product, so you're only left with the weight differential. Given the amount of corporate lobbying and marketing pushing away from reuse and towards recycling I think it likely that reuse is the winner in terms of sustainability. Recycling is an externality creation exercise to reduce costs for the business, not overall.

Are you sure they are efficiently reused, and not just faux-recycled as discussed in this thread, subsidized by the taxpayers on the back end? That's the concern parent is raising.

Beer bottles in Brazil are the same for all brands, and for a long time all marketing was done solely on the label, not in the bottle itself.

Most states already have a refundable deposit on recyclable containers.

In practice, it functions as a tax on recyclable containers: most individuals don't reclaim the deposit unless they're harvesting cans in bulk.

"Most states already have a refundable deposit on recyclable containers."

That's kind of a nebulous statement, but within the OP's context; there's only 10 states that have bottle deposits. I've never personally seen a can deposit; usually the money made from collecting cans is from their scrap weight value, not any kind of deposit.

Are there other container deposits I'm unaware of in the states?

Most (all?) states with bottle deposits also charge that on cans of soda/beer as well.

You are absolutely correct; there are can deposits in those same ten states. Thank you for pointing that out.

> Transport is cheap

only because heavy goods vehicles do not pay for the damage that they do to the roads and the environment and because the oil industry is effectively subsidised.

Glass depends on the Country, Germany is small and we do not have Tons of quartz sand available

The whole point of the EU is not to depend on the country. The EU is most of a continent, I’m sure it has ample sand and sandstone for making glass. German manufacture of cement isn’t much different from elsewhere, why would manufacture of glass be absent taxes and regulation?

well the altest reportage i've seen highlighted that germany recycles up to 50% of glas for newly made bottles. (glass bottles already get reused a lot anyway) quartz sand is available of course and we also import it, but it's actually not that cheap. in germany we have glas containers for old glas which a lot of people use, the reclycing facility only needs to filter out trash (which most often consists of metals) which is dirty simple. also it's cheaper to recycle glass. you still need high temperatures but since the glass tainted it will take way less heat (probably doesn't make that much of big difference, still above 2000 degree celsius, i think it's like 3% energy saving, but couldn't find too much articles that weren't behind closed doors). the glass still need to have a containment of a simple percentage, else it needs to be redone, but most of the time this is reached and the glass is still dirt cheap - the trash.

btw. recycling of glass isn't just done by germany. the whole eu recycles glass, with a rate of 74% (2013 data: https://feve.org/glass-recycling-hits-73-eu/, https://feve.org/recyclingstatistics2016/) (which is a lot, but not enough for some people) and as said it's mostly bottles: "An estimated 90% of what is collected goes into creating new bottles from old ones"

> Glass, on the other hand, is more of a “What the hell do we do with this?” situation because making glass from sand is cheap [...]

What about the sand shortage? [1] [2] [3]

[1] https://www.npr.org/2017/07/21/538472671/world-faces-global-...

[2] https://www.businessinsider.com/global-sand-shortage-could-c...

[3] https://www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2017/04/24/...

The shortage is for beach sand. I believe glass is made from different sort of sand.

Making glass from glass isn't expensive either, kind of similar to how you'd make glass from sand: you melt it. The government needs to set the right incentives, though. Recycling of one-time use glass works quite well in Germany.

If you use industrial feedstock of known characteristics quality control is much easier than if you use glass that might include window glass, coloured glass of a colour you don’t want, random chips of ceramic, etc.

Recycling of one time glass doesn’t work that well in Germany, look at wine bottles. What works well is reuse of bottles, both glass and plastic, and having big deposits on bottles, big enough that people are motivated to bring them back to the store to redeem the deposit.

> There is an energy saving component to recycling. Aluminum for example takes a tremendous amount of power to produce and recycling reduces that.

It's also basically one of the only things you will get paid for recycling (copper being the other notable exception; scrap steel is mostly worthless unless you have a ton of it).

No one wants to pay you for used plastic or paper. That alone should tell us all about the economics of recycling.

It should also tell a lot about the negative externalities of plastic not being priced into it.

> No one wants to pay you for used plastic or paper.

In Europe at least, people do want to pay you for used paper, and enough money that some marginal social groups specialize in collecting waste cardboard from businesses.

> Aluminum for example...

What I've heard is that Aluminum is, by far, the only material it makes sense to recycle.

Which, if true, means it's less of an example and more of an exception. Though an important one.

PE, PP, PET and 1st grade paper/cardboard also makes sense to recycle.

Wouldn't you just make landfills hotspots for mining once the economics make sense for things like metals?

Isn't it better economically not to bury the stuff in the ground and then dig it up?

Depends on the logistical costs. But I agree, it's kinda like a broken window thing.

People always mention Aluminum when it comes to recycling, but Aluminum is the best of all the materials.

The vast majority of material is not like that though.

In summary: Recycle metal, not anything else.

And even with aluminum, there are different alloys, and you can't necessarily mix them when recycling.

This is the key parts in one of the articles:

>”Mandatory recycling programs aren't good for posterity. They offer mainly short-term benefits to a few groups -- politicians, public relations consultants, environmental organizations, waste-handling corporations -- while diverting money from genuine social and environmental problems”

And while the Three Rs make some sense, it’s overwhelmed by the above. The ‘crisis’ is kinda fabricated and a whole bunch of people make money off the fabricated crisis.

That’s not to say cheap consumerism isn’t s problem, I think if is, we should strive for quality and low impact, but beware behind every crisis are myriad bands of concerned groups making lots of money.

> The ‘crisis’ is kinda fabricated and a whole bunch of people make money off the fabricated crisis.

How much money? Who’s getting rich? Just curious, what is the recycling budget in the US compared to, say, water bottle & soda & plastic bag revenues? Are the small time politicians really more motivated and walking away with more pie than Evian and Coca-cola? Are you certain the crisis isn’t real?

> beware behind every crisis are myriad bands of concerned groups making lots of money

In a way, this feels like a way to cast FUD on recycling when it’s successful. It’s supposed to generate some revenue, and people are supposed to get paid to recycle. All services have industry, everyone involved makes some money, that’s how it’s supposed to work. At least with recycling, unlike landfill, some money actually comes back.

> They offer mainly short-term benefits to a few groups -- politicians, public relations consultants, environmental organizations, waste-handling corporations

An important benefit is to the citizens who get to feel good about doing something to help the environment.

This psychological / ritualistic aspect is probably just as important as the other ones.

> An important benefit is to the citizens who get to feel good about doing something to help the environment.

But... it's not actually good for the environment?

It makes the idea of helping the environment more prominent in people's minds, thereby making them more likely to do more to help it in the future (although it could have the opposite effect for some, making them think that because they already recycle they don't have to do anything more).

I would argue that your parenthetical is more the norm, for the general population - given that people have the delusion that their zealous recycling is helping the environment, they feel like a large amount of their environmental-responsibility quota is fulfilled. They then pay little attention to all the actual harm they do through consumption and other activities. That is my perception having grown in a city that embraced recycling early (Portland, OR, USA) and where you are pilloried if you even hint that maybe recycling most things is a waste.

> The ‘crisis’ is kinda fabricated and a whole bunch of people make money off the fabricated crisis.

That’s exactly what many conservative voters suspect about climate change. They know they’ve been burned at least once over environmental issues.

Edit: I’m not promoting climate change denial. Just pointing out that it’s possible to hold that view in good faith.

The reason why certain voters in the USA dont believe in climate change is because there's a dedicated network of corporations pumping money into the media that repeats this bad-faith claim.

At some point it became table stakes for the conservative identity in America that you should reject climate change.

It really didn’t. There are always a few loud people who will make a global warming comment on a cold day, but for the most part I’ve seen more sentiment around how we stop it from a global perspective without just penalizing ourselves. There’s also a very high degree of sentiment for more nuclear power and seeing opposition to it as double speak when it comes to climate change. Essentially, if you’re truly concerned about the environmental impact of coal power, etc but you oppose nuclear then you don’t really want to solve the problem as much as push a specific agenda.

IMO the recent trade deals in Europe mandating high tariffs on imports from countries who don’t have a carbon policy in place is on the right track.

Its not that they dont believe it, they just think its not that big a deal. 4ft sealevel increase in 100 years

I believe that's a recent movement of the goal posts; it's still quite common among conservatives to believe that climate change is a hoax.

Perhaps. Climate change has been scientific since what, the 70s or 80s? Only recently have we seen repeated significant increases in the global mean temperature. This means early skeptics now are forced to choose reality vs. being a conspiracy theorist.

Politicians try to appeal to their base but both sides know climate change is 1) too far into the future to matter and 2) not much impact even in the far future.

No, "both sides" absolutely don't know this.

In fact - climate scientists are talking about changes that need to be made in the next decade if we want to put off major ecological collapse.

I think the biggest opponent of climate change is simply apathy. It is not that those people don't believe in it, they just don't care. It isn't as tangible or life quality effecting in the immediate term as air pollution was. It is more like the water will rise a bit, so what? Getting Americans to take climate change seriously will require a huge undertaking.

> They know they’ve been burned at least once over environmental issues.

What is this referring to?


This might be true in wealthier and low-density areas. In India, for example, garbage disposal is a real problem, compounded by the fact that there have been no real recycling policies until recently [1].

Also, I am confused by the argument that ‘space is not a constraint’. If that was the case, you wouldn’t expect 1.6 Mn sq. m of the Pacific Ocean to be filled with trash. And it’s been growing. [2]

If you want to study the effects of shutting down recycling, these serve primary examples.

1. http://bengaluru.citizenmatters.in/4494-where-is-bengalurus-...

2. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Pacific_garbage_patch

Recycling is not really a unified thing. Recycling large steel structures is a huge net win. Recycling plastic bottles is almost meaningless.

I wish we would go back to having to bring our own containers and fill them up instead of single use plastics. It's so clearly a terrible thing. Whatever we can do to stop single-use containers we should.

Just Salad in New York City has a reusable bowl program that has made me return a bunch of times to avoid single use plastic. You pay $1 for the bowl, and each time you bring it back you get free toppings.


The hygiene part is rather interesting. The people working with the food are not allowed to touch your bowl with their gloved hands, and your bowl can’t touch anything behind the counter. They set a plate on the counter that you set your bowl on, and then they grab the plate and steady your bowl with tongs that they clean after each salad they make anyway. Going back to reusable in restaurant settings would require thinking about the hygiene of those reusables.

Lots of restaurants never stopped using reusable utensils, they just don’t let you take their bowl home with you because it’s expensive. It would not be hard for a restaurant to take a deposit and let you walk away with their bowl, and let you get it back when you returned it to be cleaned. Several restaurants could even agree to take back each other’s dishes in exchange for their own, and then return it for you.

I agree with you and I've seen it happening already at the Christmas markets in Hamburg, Germany. I bought a hot drink that came in a ceramic mug (which required a deposit) that I then returned after walking around the rest of the market. I'm sure some people kept them as souvenirs but it seemed like the vast majority were returned.

The hygiene is a non-problem. I used to worked in (decent quality) kitchens - you would never believe what I've witnessed. And still, sanitary problems occur incredibly rarely.

Or you could just buy oatmeal in 25kg bags :)

The hygiene and manpower implications of bring-your-container easily makes that complicated.

Maybe standardized containers could work. It would certainly be practical if all boxes had the same size :)

Lots of coop supermarkets here on the west coast allow you to bring your own container to fill from bulk bins... And refillable growlers of kombucha seem to be at least a bit trendy right now.

I do a significant part of my grocery shopping in a co-op that is set up for you to take in your own package. I take jars and plastic bottles, weight them before using them in the shop, fill them up with sugar, flour, pasta, oil, soap, etc. I haven't noticed it taking any longer than a regular shop run, other than needing the foresight to prepare the bags of jars before hand and the need to go by car which is already kind of a given here.

Why not bring the 25kg bag back and refill it?

The problem there is some concerned citizen will come up with a calculation that shipping and washing a glass or heavier plastic bottle will burn more energy, etc.

That wouldn't really work in a litigious society like the US. If someone got sick or died due to food poisoning was it because of the product or because of the unclean container? Even if it was due to the container, there's no way to prove it and in the era of social media, the manufacturer's reputation would take a major hit and no major brand will risk that.

So the only viable option becomes reusable containers aka glass containers which lets manufacturers control the cleaning with a supply chain - this is still big for soft drinks sold from restaurants in India. However they're very heavy vs. plastics and both actual cost and the carbon cost of transporting them are probably unfavorable.

It's not really an easy problem to solve though reduction in consumption of packing plastics is definitely possible

All kinds of foods at Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco are sold on a bring-your-own-container basis. I bring my own containers to buy spices, oils, flour, peanut butter, pickles, deli food, and more. So it's certainly possible-- they've been doing it for 40+ years and no one has sued them out of existence yet.


No one is going to sue Rainbow Grocery. They might sue Target or Kroger.

Basically this. Or PepsiCo or Coke or Unilever or Nestle.

Just Salad in NYC has a successful reusable plastic bowl program. (I commented right before you about it.)

Greenhouse gas emission factors for recycling of source-segregated waste materials


"With the exceptions of soil, plasterboard, and paint, the recycling of source-segregated materials resulted in net GHG savings"

The goal of tax dollars is to make the people happy. If it makes them feel better, mission accomplished.

> In the end, according to Saxe’s report, the blue box diverts only 8 percent of Ontario’s material from landfills.

Is 8 percent something to be scoffed at? I mean, I do wish it was more, obviously, but on the face of it it seems ridiculous to suggest it's low enough that we should stop recycling... am I missing something?

> Most people who’ve spent their careers in waste management continue to encourage recycling—it’s better than nothing.

So isn't "it doesn't work" quite a dangerously misleading title? Shouldn't it instead be "isn't enough"? Which hardly anybody suggested in the first place...

8% certainly isn't to be scoffed at, but when councils in England can get 50%+ recycling, and compost rates, I wonder why Ontario's rate is so low

Top ten recycling authorities in England 2017/18 https://www.letsrecycle.com/councils/league-tables/

Rank Local Authority Recycling, Reuse and Composting Rates

  64.50% - East Riding of Yorkshire Council   
  63.00% - Rochford District Council  
  63.00% - South Oxfordshire District Council  
  62.40% - Three Rivers District Council  
  61.40% - Surrey Heath Borough Council  
  61.20% - Stroud District Council  
  60.50% - South Northamptonshire District Council  
  60.40% - Vale of White Horse District Council  
  60.30% - Derbyshire Dales District Council  
  60.30% - Stratford-on-Avon District Council

Is this the percentage of residents' wastes that are placed into recycle bins, or is this the percentage of waste that would've gone into a landfill that ends up actually processed for recycling? I thought part of the problem was that not everything residents send for recycling actually ends up being recycled. Your page sounds like it's in the former category but I understood the 8% figure was in the latter... though I can't say either page is clear on this...

Not entirely sure TBH but I suspect it's somewhere between the two - for example looking at some of the other data set 40%+ of what's collected is going for composting / bio gas generation.

Looking at the recycling rates in a bit more depth there's also the issue of how much waste people generate in the first place for example East Riding generates just under 500Kg of waste per person, whereas Stroud generates under 300Kg waste per person

Further, does it pave the way for expansion? We don't drive electric cars because they are 100% renewable, but rather because they have the potential to be as the science evolves. Is it worthwhile to have the recycling infrastructure in place in hopes that recycling becomes more efficient?

Germany deals with most of its waste internally. Most paper is recycled for second-rate paper products. Metal is recycled. Some plastic is recycled. The rest (general waste, organic, most of plastic) is incinerated under corresponding conditions. Incinerating organic is already quite optimal–left in nature, things would rot and produce methane. Incinerating plastic is like burning gas or oil that was originally used to produce it. It has similar calorific value as coal and in Germany is largely used to substitute some part of it in coal power plants. I’m not sure about general waste, but I’d guess after subtracting methane production in landfills, incinerating it is still a net positive.

EDIT: Most glass bottles are in the deposit system and are collected by stores, washed, and reused.

We (germans) also seperate everything personally. If I understood the article right there is just one blue bin where you put everything recycable in?

Here we have: Blue bin for paper Yellow bin for packages (plastic...and aluminium? I think) Extra Container for glass, white and green/brown) Green bin for organics. Black bin for anything else.

Beer bottles, plastic bottles and cans don't get thrown out at all, you pay a fee during purchase and get it back when you return the empty ones to a store.

What goes into the yellow bin and what doesn't is a highly controversial point of discussion in any home.

Instead of burning the plastic, wouldn't it make more sense to use techniques like pyrolysis and eventually return the plastics to non-polymer hydrocarbons, to make whatever new plastic from it?

Yes we can but we are constrained by the power/energy/money consumption in this whole recycling process.

I moved into a building that has composting. I've come to believe that recycling was a terrible place to begin environmental efforts, that we should have started with composting programs in the 1st place. Instead of trying to recycle plastic bags and containers, just make bags and containers compostable when practical. Focus on glass and plastic containers should be on reuse and aluminum doesn't seem to be a problem. Reduce, Reuse, compost, then recycle.

That is the correct order of the R's but there is no incentive to do that in the US and sometimes there even a perverse/reverse incentive in increase consumption and waste. Manufacturers make money buy selling products with pretty looking packaging. Waste management companies make money by picking up garbage and even more by picking up recycling. Recycling plants make money either through subsidies or by operating in regions were they can get the few profitable materials to resell such as aluminum. No one in the chain currently makes money through reduce and reuse.

The energy cost and usable life of plastic bags versus long life ones like jute or cotton are decisively in favour of plastic on an environmental basis. Long life plastic bags are better than single use are better than cotton/jute/hemp/linen. The problem with single use bags is litter which just disappears with nominal taxes. They’re ugly as hell but paper and cotton use much more energy and water to produce a usable bag.

Glass and plastic containers reuse is a solved problem. Put a big deposit on containers and they’ll be reused.

> The energy cost ...

This is a specious argument right from the start. Recycling isn’t about energy cost at all. Energy isn’t about to run out, we have solar, hydro and wind in the future. You can make backward facing arguments about coal use, if you want, but a strong argument would consider what’s already happening and what today’s trends imply for the future.

> paper and cotton use much more energy and water

Why worry about the two things we can renew, while ignoring plastic’s use of limited non-renewable petroleum, or the fact that plastic production produces carcinogenic pollution and poisonous byproducts?

> Glass and plastic containers reuse is a solved problem. Put a big deposit on containers and they’ll be reused.

So you mean it could be a solved problem, right? I’m in favor of requiring deposits! If only we actually did that everywhere instead of passing out free single use plastics...

>> The energy cost ... > This is a specious argument right from the start. Recycling isn’t about energy cost at all. Energy isn’t about to run out, we have solar, hydro and wind in the future. You can make backward facing arguments about coal use, if you want, but a strong argument would consider what’s already happening and what today’s trends imply for the future.

If we use plastic bags instead of paper or cotton ones we’ll use tens to hundreds of times more energy. Whether you think it’s backwards facing or not, in the present huge amounts of that energy comes from burning fossil fuels and the energy that doesn’t come from fossil fuels needs resources to be produced, it doesn’t appear ex nihilo. Solar requires minerals to be mined and hydro requires land be flooded and dams built. Everything requires resources, which costs are real, not fictitious, whether denominated in dollars or kilojoules.

>> paper and cotton use much more energy and water >Why worry about the two things we can renew, while ignoring plastic’s use of limited non-renewable petroleum, or the fact that plastic production produces carcinogenic pollution and poisonous byproducts?

Because energy isn’t free any more than the land for growing cotton or trees is, or water pumped from aquifers is. Paper and cotton production is also not without its own chemical waste and uses far, far more water than making plastic bags does.

>> Glass and plastic containers reuse is a solved problem. Put a big deposit on containers and they’ll be reused. >So you mean it could be a solved problem, right? I’m in favor of requiring deposits! If only we actually did that everywhere instead of passing out free single use plastics...

Yeah, if there was political will to do so it could be done in months not years. When things don’t happen because voters don’t want them that’s democracy.

> in the present huge amounts of that energy comes from burning fossil fuels

That is true, and unfortunate, in the US. At least fossil energy is declining and wind is on the rise. Brazil and Canada are more than 50% hydro. We can, if we choose, reduce and eliminate fossil energy. Choosing is the hard part.

> Everything requires resources, which costs are real

Of course that’s true as a generalization. But, you’ve just compared burning some coal for every single watt to building a windmill or dam once and letting the watts generate themselves for years and years. There is a massive difference in the resources needed to produce energy with fossil fuels vs wind, solar, and hydro, so please don’t imply it’s some kind of equivalence.

> When things don’t happen because voters don’t want them that’s democracy.

This is cute sounding, but not very helpful or even particularly true. The majority of US voters have never voted on whether Evian bottles should have deposits or whether grocery stores should use plastic bags. Now that some cities are voting on bags, they’re starting to vote them down.

Other reasons things don’t happen are not knowing what’s possible, lacking imagination, inability to work together and/or pool resources, fear and misinformation, fear of regulation & taxes, etc.

I was rather shocked reading this, so decided to look this up. It turns out paper bags are just as bad too:

- Compared to a plastic bags their production releases 70% more air pollution, and 50x more water pollution.

- To recycle paper bags takes 10x more energy than plastic bags.


(Note that this is from 2011, so maybe the numbers have changed since then)

I think it depends on the recycling system.. In the US and Canada I've found that you often mix all recyclables. The article mentions blue boxes collected from each household.

In Denmark I dump paper and glass into a separate containers, these are typically present around apartment buildings, or spread throughout residential areas. The containers are large and rarely emptied.

Collecting from each household sounds very expensive. As does sorting the recyclables (in particularly any manual sorting).

If you read the article, the problem remains regardless of whether garbage is sorted manually (Denmark) or automatically (Canada). The problem is that the sorted recyclables are subject to market supply/demand laws and are frequently cheaper to send to landfill than to sell (and deliver) to manufacturers. In other words, we produce too much garbage and there simply isn't that many manufacturers that are interested in buying and processing recyclables.

That's not necesarily an unsolvable problem. I know several companies in Denmark who produce fresh plastic from recyclable plastic, and they can't meet market demand for their product - primarily due to them not being able to get enough "clean" or uncontaminated plastic. So the reality is much more nuanced than that.

(I have a startup in the danish waste industry)

I'm sure it is. All in all, it looks like the idea of recycling doesn't work as it was advertised and is perceived by the average citizen.

If consumer sorting and centralised collection transfers costs away from the garbage collection company and to citizens, the garbage collection company can profitably tolerate a lower market price.

Probably manual sorting can offset some cost, however it's not clear (as I'm not an expert in this matter) if that makes a difference. Garbage prices can't go extremely low due to transportation costs that are constant. So at some point it doesn't really matter if sorting costs are offset to citizens or not - the transportation costs prevent them from being sufficiently low for the manufacturers.

Collection from each house hold sound prohibitively expensive.

I'd guess that better-sorted recyclables are easier to sell, though.

Silly Europeans spending their time sorting trash...

The things that become trash are usually pre-sorted. It's not that difficult to not throw them in the same bin.

If we get started about national stereotypes, maybe it's too difficult for Americans.

it's too difficult for me. I wonder what the economic loss of having people sort their trash is, regardless of productivity and education level

This is yet another failing of US Suburbia. Households are too spread out for centralized collection points to be viable - you'd end up with each point only serving a few houses or people driving the stuff over - both of which rather defeat the point.

Do people in suburbia not make regular trips to the supermarket in their cars?

Depends, with grocery delivery services I find myself doing it less often. Also, if I do visit the store it may be after work and before I'm back home.

Imagine if you could only borrow a fixed amount of packaging at a time, and you had to return the excess (properly sorted and cleaned) before you could buy more. The more non-R material (light weight plastic like strawberry shells) the more your waste costs would go up.

And why not rigid and reusable ABS trays for strawberries? Would the trucking cost for returning to the distribution centre be excessive? Or is it just that the entire supply chain assumes trucks return empty?

An interesting example is CHEP pallets. They are only loaned, pallets come back eventually. Interesting operations research problems in moving pallets around.

The sorting is automatic.

The article talked about it happening partially by machine and partially by hand. At least, in whatever system they looked at. I'd guess this varies.

Either way, the blue bin encourages "aspirational recycling" where people just put in anything they think might be recyclable, rather than following the rules based on what their local recycling system can actually handle.

I often catch myself thinking "it's ok to buy this massively overpackaged item because the packaging is recyclable". I have a feeling that if recycling doesn't work, it's far from neutral. There will be a large number of people that rationalise producing far, far more waste than they would otherwise because they falsely think it isn't harmful.

There will be a large number of people that rationalise producing far, far more waste than they would otherwise because they falsely think it isn't harmful.

This, of course, is by design.

Why "of course"? No design is needed since this sort of thing could easily happen by evolution.

Marketing is empirical and competitive. Some companies could have discovered that recyclable products sell more without necessarily understanding consumer behavior all that well, and the rest can copy them. They aren't likely to question it if it works.

Which isn't to say it can't be by design, but that's a matter of knowing the history behind it.

I have a similar thought about "biodegradable" things --- "let's make things that are guaranteed to self-destruct so we can continue spending resources to make and sell them to you".

Biodegradable doesn't mean low carbon either. But if there is a biodegradable option and a traditional landfill one, perhaps the landfill cost should be explicit.

The real solution is both very simple and incredibly complex at the same time: producers should be obligated (and incentivized) to take care of the waste from their products. Every other solution simply won't work.

How to do that? No idea. :)

> How to do that? No idea. :)

tax wasteful products. If single use forks or bottles become more expensive, people will choose reusable options.

This is not what I had in mind. Whoever produces something should get rid of it. I don't care if it's single use if producer is able to get it back and recycle it.

There are ways to recycle trash indiscriminately. Basically, you have a graphite electrode plasma arc that turns the trash into plasma. Most trash is carbon bond stuff that will combust, so you get energy out of it - and not negligible amounts of energy (maybe 1-5% of per capita energy use for 1000kg /person/year). What remains is a kind of black slurry that solidifies into bricks or black wool that you can use for construction/insulation etc. If you have enough energy, you can continue to ionize the trash and accelerate the charged plasma through a magnetic separator (like a mass spec) to separate the trash atoms based on charge to mass ratio. The second part would consume way too much energy.

How about this for a more reasonable title: Current Efforts to Recycle Domestic Waste Should be Improved ?

Really, it's good to outline inefficiencies with current systems, but really, recycling does not work?

Because that would be editoralizing, which is what we are supposed to avoid on Hacker News.

I’m not suggesting we change the title, I’m suggesting the author could’ve done a little better.

Recycling rules are very location specific. I’ve had to educate people in our Oakland office that certain things that are recyclable in next-door San Francisco aren’t recyclable here. Before deciding that recycling won’t work for you, check in with your local recycling agency or company.

Can you talk more about this? What was the example? What is actually achievable and worth recycling?

a few of you have new and interesting takes on the issue for me to consider. but what about the millions of tons of plastic that have worked its way into the oceans? and if landfill space isn’t an issue why are we shipping it off to foreign countries? seems like recycling is a very loose loop but if we keep at it, it could become tighter. i think it would be cool if various resources, some day, could be recycled on a household level- like water foremost and eventually plastics, organics

Just about every nation, except the US, signed a legally binding treaty[1] last Friday to not ship it off to foreign countries.

I'd be far happier if we bought into reduce and reuse and bring back deposit/return schemes, but it's something.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/may/10/nearly-a...

How do you recycle plastics? What you call "plastics" fall in thousands of different polymers or mixes of polymers that have vastly different properties and characteristics. There is no way you will be able to recycle any of that easily, or even less at home.

i was thinking 1-3 different types, 1 for sporks, one for t-shirts, jackets, and another for toys/lawn furniture. i readily admit i don’t know enough about plastics processing. i was further imagining broken, worn, stained, fallen out of fashion could be ground down and reformed by some advanced 3d printer. but i can constrain my own thoughts, i can see impediments- technical or behavior(desire to purchase). dream with me anyway.

>and if landfill space isn’t an issue why are we shipping it off to foreign countries

Because China was paying us for it.

I think that's the stuff that never made it onto the bin -> garbage truck -> landfill path. The main constituents are stuff like cigarette butts, laundry fibers, fishing gear... Stuff littered on land or at sea and stuff we just flush downstream

This business of single use stuff is seen as a symbol of progress in many 3rd world countries. Many restaurants offer bottled water and sachets of condiments rather than taking them out of a container. Many shops offer paper bags that are very flimsy but "biodegradable". I imagine that given the production costs of the paper, it's an overall loss.

Heavy consumerism does help the economy grow doesn't it? Which probably means that the incentives are misaligned and this whole mess is just going to increase.

In developing countries, the bottled water is also about sanitation. When I go to India, I am very careful to never let tap water or anything that might be tap water near my mouth. That means lots and lots of bottled water, sealed until it gets to my hands.

And I still get sick periodically. :/

This is a valid concern if you're a foreigner. Two counterpoints though if you're Indian

1. This is not much of a concern if you're Indian. I regularly drink from restaurants and other places when I travel and I don't get sick. 2. I carry a bottle which I fill regularly when I eat and use that instead of buying bottles.

My Indian experience is quite limited (I almost never go anywhere but Hyderabad), but I was under the impression that locals mostly don't drink the water either? Something like 20% do, if I remember correctly (which is questionable). Certainly none of the developers in our office there admit to it. For whatever that's worth, which ain't much. The limited research I've seen from Indian sources suggests that, at least in Hyderabad, it remains a problem. Some of the contamination is related to human feces, but some of it is non-biological and probably not something you can really develop a tolerance for. May not make you immediately ill, but not something to drink if you don't have to.

The place you drink at also matters. Some restaurants, even small places, keep packaged water cans and serve water from there these days.

Way more thoughtful than the GPT-2 model’s take on the question: https://openai.com/blog/better-language-models/#sample8

> Of the three Rs drilled into our heads in school—reduce, reuse, recycle—recycling is the only one that most of us regularly practise.

This is the most salient point of these discussions, I think. I've found it much easier to reduce and sometimes to reuse. For one, it's just not hard for me to tell myself that 'I don't need that' -- whatever 'that' happens to be at the moment. For another, replacing plastic bottles with reusable containers involves some effort initially, but once you figure it out, it's actually easy.

I lived in Seattle when the recycling nazis first started up their garbage patrols. What a waste of effort. Spend the energy on providing accessible and clean drinking fountains or spigots, or spend some influencer money on making reusing stuff cool. Yes, I understand that many consumer products are made in such a way as to shorten their useful life, and there's a lot of economic reasons behind that. So spend some effort on changing that and it will still be more beneficial than fining people for putting their trash in the wrong bin.

My county recently changes up the rules on recycling. And it was a bit eye opening. They now will only take #1 and #2 plastic, paper, and aluminum only in the main recycling. Nothing else. They have nowhere they can send any other kinds of plastic to, at least for an affordable amount, because the entire region has nowhere processing it.

As for glass, they no longer take it for recycling either. They will accept it at the land fill, rather than in normal collection, to be crushed and used in concrete.

They also mentioned that food contamination is a huge problem, and can end up in entire batches of recycling ending up in the landfill instead. Because it is not cost efficient to sort it all out. Like most people think about cardboard pizza boxes as recyclable, however they tend not to be due to the grease.

I'm not sure the problem has a technology solution. I would rather prefer policymakers to impose an obligation that any importer of packaged goods must collect an equivalent amount of similar packaging garbage and utilize it at their own cost.

The problem of packaging garbage should be offset to [offshore] producers (who have no skin in the game), rather than citizens (who we know are eager to help the environment).

When China stopped accepting recyclables, the good answer would be to demand Chinese producers to take back an equivalent amount of similar packaging garbage in exchange for allowing them to import goods to Canada.

1. Reduce

2. Reuse

3. Recycle

In that order

For reduce...

Would be nice if all manufacturers were required to sell spare parts. Or at least label each part with a part-number so others could part their units out for parts.

Or if you don't want to sell spare parts, or want to stop selling them, then you must release the plans.

Reducing waste via repair is indeed a valid goal, but at the level of consumer volume, really a very tiny thing to be worried about. The quantity of plastic bags, bottles, boxes, and other packaging is staggering compared to what one might generate once every few years when buying a new phone.

The product you don't own has less impact than the one you repair. Though I'm not sure we are ready to embrace that idea yet.

A nice middle ground may be requiring to release plans if the product has been for sale for more than one designated replacement period.

I guess we should sit down and try to make trash easier to deal with, like maybe restricting the most problematic type of packaging there are out there? I'm sure engineers know what type of packaging are the easiest to deal with, or maybe they could work with the engineers who work with trash?

Wouldn't a solution would be re-usable, standardized packaging?

It would increase the consumer price, but until we realize trash is an externality we cannot deal with anymore, I'm sure we are headed there and that's the best solution. Not an easy one, but it's the best.

Just dump all the sorted garbage into sorted landfills in the middle of nowhere. In the future, AI-powered garbage bots will be able to make sense of it all and perhaps turn it into upcycled iPhone cases.

Or maybe global warming has killed us all by then, in which case having dealt with all the garbage of the present would've been a total waste of time.

The same goes for nuclear waste. People debating how to safely store nuclear waste for hundreds of thousands of years don't realize that the hazard material of today might be valuable tomorrow.

I'm dead serious.

This article suggests recycling is a mixture of economically ineffective and actively environmentally harmful but I wasn’t left with a clear understanding of which types of recycling are which.

Certainly aluminum recycling seems to make both economic and environmental sense.

But for glass, paper, and plastic, is there a point where I would be doing the environment a service by throwing it in the landfill box instead of the recycling box?

The workers at the recycling plant will gladly throw plastic in the landfill if it's not usefully recyclable.

The message I took away from the article, though, is we shouldn't kid ourselves that having a recycling bin suddenly makes waste environmentally friendly.

Its really interesting to me when I look around places like Germany. The majority of beverages are served in glass bottles, carry a bottle opener btw.

What about grinding it up into soil? They have developed techniques in British Columbia to grow fully mature forests in 10 years by laying down a mixture of soil and nutrients 6 feet deep and then planting seedlings very close together. The close competition causes the seedlings to grow faster.

Grind it up, soak it with nutrients and plant forests on it.

Grinding things up would be pretty energy expensive, which kinda defeats the purpose. Also That's kinda what landfills are: dig hole, fill it up until it's a mound, cover with dirt and grass.

In the post fossil fuel age, garbage could become an easily stored fuel, to be incinerated when there's a lull in wind and not enough sun. Its plastic and other reduced organic contents will be derived from non-fossil sources, and it will be recycled by oxidation back to the CO2 and water it came from.

Fossil fuels burn cleaner and if we run out of those we'll be dead. There is way more available carbon than we could release without having much bigger problems than finding more.

I believe if you burn garbage (including plastics) at high enough temperatures, most harmful gasses are also incinerated?

Tokyo burns a lot of rubbish in super high temperature furnaces and uses the waste heat for other purposes, from what I understand these incineration plans don’t release any significant harmful pollution (excerpt Co2 of course)

That sounds like a silver bullet. The Wikipedia article on incineration isn't so rosy, but it doesn't have much on Japan specifically

> Fossil fuels burn cleaner and if we run out of those we'll be dead.

So, you're saying civilization is going to irretrievably collapse when the fossil fuels run out? That's dark.

Fortunately, you are quite wrong. There is nothing magical about fossil fuels that makes them irreplaceable.

That's actually the opposite of what I'm trying to say. Lack of burnable things will never be a problem, because surviving the side effects of all the burning would be the limiting factor long before we have to scrounge for things to burn.

what I think should be done is require waste management companies to sort the plastics, glass, and metal in different locations in the landfill. however they do this is up to them (obviously it's ripe for automation). Then, at a future date, if it makes sense to recycle plastic, someone could dig up the landfill where thousands of tons of plastic is stored. same for glass, etc. this would not require a second set of trucks to drive down the street and release CO2 so we can all do the job that should be the responsibility of a corporation whose service we're paying for.

as a bonus, if enough of the organic material was in one place, it may be easier to harvest the methane given off (which they already do, but would be more concentrated if a considerable portion of non-biomass were separated).

Most of these problems have solutions. For example, the US could print its money, in the form of 1 cent notes, on paper made from recycled pizza boxes. Then we use that currency to pay China for manufactured goods.

I wonder how TetraPak recycling works (and if it works at all). It's a very common packaging material, but it's a composite of aluminium, plastic and paper. Can they be separated?

I feel like the most effective garbage triage would be to separate food wastes from packaging and the rest. Everyone should do composting at a local level

We have had our food waste collected for years now (UK), it gets composted centrally. Once a year we get to collect free compost.

We used to do it at home but had to deal with rodents and fruit flies as well as not being able to add meat byproducts to the pile.

In my experience recycling doesn't work because people throw their waxed half-drunk Starbucks into the paper waste and call themselves green.

Is there any info on how this works when the rules are actually followed?

Imho the main thing recycling does at a home level is bring awareness to the actual issue regarding garbage.

I recommend 2 older books on the topic:

Cradle to Cradle

Natural Capitalism

Appreciate other recommendations.

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