What the world misses about recycling

We tend to think that we are familiar with waste because we deal with it every day. Yet, most aspects of waste are entirely hidden from view and understanding, including the wider social, economic, political, cultural, and material systems that shape waste and wasting. For instance, household waste is a tiny fraction of waste generally. The vast majority of waste–around 97%–is industrial waste. Because personal experiences with waste is a limited perspective, the field of discard studies is central to thinking through and countering the initiative and familiar aspects of waste. As more attention in popular, policy, activist, engineering, and research areas is focused on waste and wasting, it becomes crucial to contextualize the problems, materialities and systems that are not readily apparent to the invested but casual observer. Our task as discard studies researchers is to trouble the assumptions, premises, and popular mythologies of waste so discussions can address these wider systems, rather than fall to technological or moral fixes (Recycle more! Don’t use plastic straws!) that deal with symptoms rather than origins of problems.

To help defamiliarize and demythologize aspects of waste, Discard Studies hosts a series of interviews with researchers who are working to show some of the more invisible, less well known aspects of waste and wasting, collectively called demythologizing waste. The following text is written by Frank Ackerman, author of an early work in discard studies entitled Why Do We Recycle?. The text below is his response to the question: What is the biggest myth about ‘waste’ that you wish people understood?


What the world misses about recycling

by Frank Ackerman

Waste management, formerly a dull technical subject, became an exciting topic of political and environmental debate in the 1980s. With rapidly growing interest in recycling, advocates sought economic justification in the need to solve a supposed landfill crisis (since thoroughly debunked[2]), and the claimed cost reduction created by recycling (prices paid for recycled materials are highly cyclical; recycling most obviously reduces waste management costs at the peak of the cycle).

Both of these claims miss the point. Recycling was never just a solution to a disposal crisis, and it did not uniformly reduce total waste management costs. Rather, it addresses a range of other concerns which are equally valid but nearly impossible to quantify.

Recycling, composting, and waste reduction measures in general address the desire for a simpler, less wasteful lifestyle. The onslaught of cheap, often single-use materials in the second half of the twentieth century left many people longing for a purer way to live. In the 1967 film “The Graduate”, an older family friend offers “just one word” of advice to the new college graduate: “Plastics”. As the New Yorker commented, “In the film, ‘plastics’ is understood to mean a cheap, sterile, ugly, and meaningless way of life, boring almost by definition…”[3] It was, in retrospect, good career advice for a 1967 graduate in narrowly monetary terms, but it also epitomized the world that so many graduates of that era wanted to escape, or change.

The virtues of a simpler life are endorsed by many religions. And in the early days of recycling, older participants often had fond memories of shared sacrifice for a greater good, such as World War II rationing, scrap drives, and recycling. Putting a price on these attitudes, trying to monetize these desires, would be ludicrous – yet these are important motivations for the modern recycling movement.


At Maclodeganj, 2017. Photo by Anna211991Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

A related problem, which environmental theory has too often overlooked, is littering. The visual assault of trash strewn in public places is disturbing; it conveys an undesirable locale, a community in disarray, a place to avoid. Lady Bird Johnson (the nickname for President Lyndon Johnson’s wife) made highway beautification her priority in the 1960s, attracting no small amount of mockery for adopting such a lightweight, unimportant goal. Yet she was right on time: single-use, non-returnable soft drink and beer containers first became widely distributed in the 1960s, and immediately started to show up on formerly clean roadsides.

What is the value of avoiding litter? Economists have rarely addressed the issue, although it clearly matters to many people. Ten U.S. states adopted “bottle bills”, requiring refundable deposits on soft drink and beer containers, relatively promptly after the arrival of single-use containers. Beverage industry arguments that it was cheaper to sponsor curbside recycling programs were used to justify inaction in more conservative states; these arguments never explained how curbside recycling collection would keep highways and beaches clean.

Since the initial wave of adoptions, the only state to add a new bottle bill was Hawaii. Tourism is crucial to the Hawaii economy, and pristine, litter-free beaches are of great value to the state. But the value of reducing litter extends far beyond tourist destinations. The growing popularity of bans on plastic bags is driven by the desire to reduce litter, not by cost calculations.

In comparison to these profound but unquantified motivations, the calculus of costs and benefits can seem petty. When talking about my book, Why Do We Recycle?[4], I often mentioned an estimate, which I believed to be state of the art at the time (in the 1990s), finding that a typical U.S. curbside recycling program would raise total waste management costs by $24 per household per year. A Japanese colleague heard me say this, thought for a minute, and then burst out laughing at the small size of the cost. It was the most sensible response I ever got: tiny differences in costs and benefits – often, as in this case, within the margin of error for such calculations – should not drive major decisions about public policy.

The classic paradigm of disposal crises and monetized costs and benefits misses the most important goals. A simpler life, the satisfaction of reducing one’s personal waste, a world where “plastics” is no longer good career advice, an environment free of packaging litter – these are the real reasons for recycling.


Photo by Max Liboiron, 2015. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.


Frank Ackerman is author of Why Do We Recycle? Markets, Values, and Public Policies (1997), Pricing the priceless: Cost-benefit analysis of environmental protection (2002), and “Climate risks and carbon prices: Revising the social cost of carbon” (2012).

Other Discard Studies posts on this topic include: Modern Waste is an Economic Strategy; We can’t recycle our way to ‘zero waste’; Recycling Reconsidered: A must-read text for discard studies


[1] Principal economist, Synapse Energy Economics, Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was active in the economic analysis of waste management and recycling in the 1990s. See http://frankackerman.com for biography and publications.

[2] In the U.S., new environmental regulations in the 1980s led to alarming numbers of small landfills closing to avoid the cost of compliance. Less noticed at the time was the expansion of larger landfills which could easily afford to comply with regulations. Total available landfill capacity increased, despite the closure of many small dumps.

[3] https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/plastics (2010).

[4] Frank Ackerman (1997), Why Do We Recycle? Markets, Values, and Public Policies (Washington DC: Island Press).