How Green Is Recycling?

Treehugger recently called out Terracycling and Issy for greenwashing, and it got me to thinking. Recycling programs are borderline greenwashing. We have been lulled into thinking it’s perfectly acceptable to buy plastics because we can always recycle them later. I personally feel great about my county taking 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 7 plastics – including lids. Yet, I wonder, how much of that plastic actually gets recycled? And what happens to the stuff that is recycled?

According to the EPA’s fact sheet on plastics, plastics make up more than 12 percent of the municipal solid waste stream. In comparison, this is a huge increase since 1960 when they were less than one percent of the waste stream. In 2010, plastic waste totaled 31 million tons. Of that, only 2.4 millions tons were recycled. Don’t let that number fool you to thinking that citizens aren’t making use of their recycling bins. Rather consider these other facts from the EPA:

  • In 2010, the US generated close to 14 million tons of plastics as containers and packaging, nearly 11 million tons as durable goods like appliances, and nearly 7 million tons as nondurable goods like plates and cups.

  • In 2010, 28 percent of HDPE bottles and 29 percent of PET bottles and jars were recycled.

  • In 2010, plastics like bags, sacks and wraps were recycled at almost 12 percent.

The math doesn’t add up to “green” success. We are only capturing a small fraction (2.4 million out of 31 million tons) of plastics that are being recovered.

Additionally, those plastics do not get recycled into the same products. Rather, they are downgraded into products that in many cases cannot be further recycled. Cradle to Cradle authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart put recycling into perspective by calling it “downcycling.” McDonough and Braungart illustrate that even the items most widely accepted for recycling – think plastic bottles and aluminum cans – are really downcycled into a lower quality material. The plastic bottles get mixed with other plastics and melted into a hybrid, lower quality plastic that is used in speed bumps and park benches.(1)



Creative Commons Image "green hand chairs ~ recycled plastic PET bottles" by Urban Woodswalker via flickr

Creative Commons Image “green hand chairs ~ recycled plastic PET bottles” by Urban Woodswalker via flickr



Conventionally recycled aluminum cans – with tops made from aluminum magnesium alloy and sides from aluminum, manganese alloy with some magnesium, and paint – are melted without separating the aluminum.(2) The result is a blend that must be doctored in order to be remade into cans; either new aluminum is added to make it malleable enough to make into can bodies or more magnesium is added to increase stiffness for can tops. NY Times reports that Novelis, the largest American supplier of aluminum sheet, only used recycled aluminum for 39% of input material in 2011. Thus, our “recycled” aluminum cans still require virgin aluminum.

To take the downcycling process a step further, consider what else needs to be added to lower-quality, hybrid, recycled items to beef-up their viability: stabilizers, fungicides, chemical and mineral additives.(3) Also consider those chemicals found in the original material. What happens to the antimony, catalytic residues, ultraviolet stabilizers, plasticizers, and antioxidants when bottles are recycled into eco-friendly polyester clothing? I do not know if there is a way to separate out all those chemicals during the process, and McDonough and Braungart suggest that the current recycling processes do not account for removal of all those extras found in plastics.

Recycling may be good for the soul or give one peace of mind, but research shows that reducing consumption and reusing products ultimately puts less into the waste stream. Clearly, product engineering and design is also an integral part of the loop. Without considering the entire life cycle of a product, recycling will never truly be sustainable.

Do you think we should focus attention on refining product design or refining the recycling process?

Do you have any experience with product design or recycling that could enlighten us about the challenges or advantages with each option?


Featured image: Creative Commoms Image “Empties” by gfpeck via flickr


1  William McDonough and Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle: remaking the way we make things (New York: North Point Press, 2002), 56.

2 Ibid, 57.

3 Ibid, 58.


This is a continuation of a recycling series. Read the first installment here.

2 Responses to “How Green Is Recycling?”
  1. Dan Kulpinski says:

    That’s a thought-provoking post! Although plastics and aluminum might have their downsides when it comes to recycling, glass recycling seems pretty efficient. I just saw this story from NPR about how glass recycling is effective, and bottle makers actually would use more recycled glass if it were available. See “How a Used Bottle Becomes a New Bottle, in 6 GIFs”

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  1. […] A great example is right here on Koh Tao. The island does have a recycling centre but once everything is collected, its bundled onto trucks, driven down to ferries and shipped to the mainland. Once there, the recyclables are melted down and usually made into downgraded plastic items that are unable to be recycled again. From this one example of recycling on Koh Tao, its easy to conclude that the ideal choice is reducing use instead of relying on recycling. […]

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