Does recycling actually conserve or preserve things?

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By Samantha MacBride

There are a series of assumptions behind the familiar assertion that recycling saves resources and energy, and in so doing, protects the environment. These assumptions are in the motto, “recycling saves trees.” With recycling  – one assumes – used materials stand in for raw materials. This way, recycled content cuts down on the need to extract (conservation), which in turn prevents some of the environmental damage from extraction that would be taking place without recycling (preservation).

Conservation and preservation are distinct, though linked, ideas. Historians of North American environmentalism distinguish the Conservation Movement, which focused on the responsible management of materials to sustain production and economic growth, from the Preservation Movement, which stressed the protection of wilderness.1 Both movements have been rightly critiqued for failing to consider questions of power and equity in people’s health, dignity, and livelihoods.2  Still, the distinction between conserving resources for use in production, and preserving complex ecosystems (which include people in human settlements), is useful for a question I now pose about recycling.  Does recycling, in the way it is practiced today, actually conserve or preserve things that matter?

To answer “yes” requires that a set of assumptions hold true. When we say recycling saves trees, we start by assuming that the paper in the recycling bin goes to a plant to be sorted and baled.  Plant managers find buyers for the bales, which are shipped off to a manufacturer. We assume that this manufacturer, individually or as part of a larger industry sector, is weighing the options between using virgin input (wood pulp) or secondary input (recycled paper). When it costs less to use recycled paper as an input, the manufacturer is going to use the secondary material to make things. So far, so good.

But to save trees, much less forests, more has to happen.  When the decision is made to use recycled input, the virgin alternative ought to be conserved in a way that preserves ecosystems and people.  Preservation isn’t achieved if the virgin stock is directed into a new product that hasn’t existed before; or if it is conserved technically for later use, and then harvested and utilized when economic growth makes for favorable conditions to ramp up production.  It’s not enough to simply offer up recycled paper on a commodity market to be grabbed when price signals are favorable. It doesn’t do to merely measure increases in recycled content of various products on the market. Nor is it sufficient to theorize that recycling may have slowed a sectoral growth rate that would have proceeded, all things being equal, faster in an imaginary world in which there was no recycling at all.  To save trees in a way that matters ecologically and socially means something more. It means that forests, including forest ecosystems and surrounding livelihoods in all of their complexity, are actually protected in today’s world.

Theoretically, there is no reason why recycling couldn’t deliver on such protection, were it integrated into a system of monitoring that followed through on promises.  Such a system would need to identify limits on rates of extraction in accordance with their ecosystemic threat; include long term planning for stabilization of some extractive industries, and phase-out of others; and ensure maximum protection of future lands and ecosystems from development.  Under such a system, extractive industries would need to demonstrate to what degree recycled inputs substituted for virgin sources in their sectors annually, and also that their sectors were not encroaching with new development in terrains that matter to people and other living things.

Empirically, there is no question that at certain times, for certain periods, recycling may have conserved virgin resources to some degree; and even that recycling may play a role in localized resource policies, such as boosting timber plantations that spare virgin forests as sources in papermaking. In fact, portions of the assumption of conservation, can be and regularly are dragged out for theoretical and/or empirical testing within the disciplines of resource economics, materials flow analysis, and life cycle analysis. There is much scholarship that asks whether recycling has resulted in, or could theoretically result in, less net extraction or harvest.3  Such inquiries are interesting in their own right, and to the extent that they tell us something about tradeoffs that manufacturers make between virgin and recycled inputs, they inform an understanding of what recycling could, under ideal circumstances, achieve in terms of actual conservation — which would be a precondition for, but not a guarantee of, actual preservation.

We are on shaky ground, however, if we take these assumptions for granted. I trace my concern on this matter to the work of William Stanley Jevons.4  In the 19th century, technological improvements in mining and combustion were greatly improving the efficiency of using coal as fuel.  Noting these developments, Jevons argued that, rather than conserve coal, improvements in efficiency, and a subsequent drop in coal price, would paradoxically lead to an increased demand for coal.

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The Jevons Paradox. Public Domain.

Now known as Jevons’ Paradox, this perspective observes that when you increase efficiency in production and consumption, you may well see an increase in overall extraction.5  Massive amounts of scholarship have followed the Jevons’ Paradox, most around energy efficiency.6  In the materials realm, recycling can be thought of as a form of efficiency (getting more out of the same input).7 There is a growing body of work tracing the effects of recycling on extraction of virgin materials, in particular in the area of metals.8 Scholars ask questions about conservation of metals in part because the data on their trade is more available than for other materials. It’s more organized. It’s more harmonized among different nations, given the nature of these economies. Both the economy of metals and as well as the material properties of metals make them relatively easy to be recycled over and over again and be reintroduced back into production, especially in comparison the heterogeneous range of synthetic polymers we call plastics.  Yet we see growing rates of metals extraction taking place alongside growing recycling rates, worldwide.  We can speculate about what those growth rates would have been had recycling not existed, but it would be hard to argue that global production systems are using less virgin raw material as a result of metals recycling, much less that metal recycling is preserving lands from mining.9

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The caveats and careful measurements in the specialized literatures above suggest that recycling can conserve resources temporarily in some cases, almost always absent considerations of preservation.  Such nuances fall away, however, as recycling becomes idealized and abstracted as an ethical, “earth-saving” end unto itself. Under-examined assumptions of conservation and preservation run deep through recycling discourse, and are also core to the notion that reuse will cut down on the flow of materials and energy from cradle to grave.  Each time reuse and recycling are affirmed in the waste hierarchy, there is a hazy sense that somewhere, by someone, some sort of accounting is going on to ensure that overall, recycling is delivering protection of things that matter.  I would wager that many in the media, in environmental education, and even in environmentally focused NGOs hold this position.  This is how recycling would, actually and not just in theory, “save the planet.” But is there really any coordinating body who is conducting such accounting?  No.10 And is recycling actually preserving ecosystems and livelihoods, or achieving real-world “dematerialization” (the technical term for less use of raw materials overall)? Not in any systematic way.11

Oil, Gas, and Plastics

So far I’ve used the examples of forest products and metals.  I have done so because of the historical potency of the motto “recycling saves trees”, and the relatively developed scholarship around steel, aluminum, and other metals.  In reality, much more is going on around forestry, or the mining and metals trade, than is taken into account when one simply looks at recycling. But at least we have some data to inform questions.  If we examine the plastics industry and the role of plastics recycling, we find that similar assumptions abound, with particular complications, and little information. How can we evaluate the assumption that plastic recycling reduces the need to extract fossil fuels; or the separate but related claim that manufacturing with recycled inputs uses less energy, meaning lower fuel use economy-wide, meaning diminished carbon emissions?

It is well known that only a small percentage of global fossil fuel extraction is used directly in plastics production.12 So even recycling every shred of plastic would not, on its own, diminish the need to drill at current rates by much.  Looking specifically at the U.S., the situation is no different. Let’s say we build up domestic plastic recycling capacity in the U.S., as many are calling for in the wake of China’s imports restrictions. What would the effect be of repatriating that tonnage, and feeding it back into domestic production, on domestic fossil fuel extraction – to make plastics, or to generate electricity?  

It may surprise you to learn that the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) “is unable to determine the specific amounts or origin of the feedstocks that are actually used to manufacture plastics in the United States.”13

 The reason hints at the constantly fluctuating conditions of virgin raw material sourcing that I’ve alluded to above, and data limitations that I’ll elaborate below.  The EIA writes:

Because the petrochemical industry has a high degree of flexibility in the feedstock it consumes and because EIA does not collect detailed data on this aspect of industrial consumption, it is not possible for EIA to identify the actual amounts and origin of the materials used as inputs by industry to manufacture plastics. 14

Let’s pivot back to the day-to-day understanding of recycling, in which it is it is axiomatic to assert that plastic recycling saves oil and gas resources.15 On a ton-for-ton basis, in a hypothetical scenario in which recycled materials actually substitute for fossil fuels, and lead to a concomitant net decrease in extraction or fuel combustion, such claims hold.  But without data on “actual amounts and origin of materials used as inputs,” it is not possible to evaluate the actual effect of plastics recycling on conserving such inputs. This would be the precondition to assessing what role, if any, plastics recycling has on actual preservation of things that matter in the U.S. (such as coastal communities, Indigenous peoples’ lands, and/or arctic wildlife refuges).

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Plastics from one hour of trawling in the Hudson River. Photo by Max Liboiron.

Frequent assumptions are being made among well-intentioned members of the media, environmental organizations, and concerned individuals that actual, current recycling efforts are part of real world protection. In more specialized discussions around Zero Waste and Circular Economy, there is a rolling process of coming to terms with hints that assumptions of conservation and preservation don’t hold. If, for example, we are dismayed to learn that plastics are “downcycled,” our dismay betrays a faith in the assumption of preservation in the background.  If only plastic bottles could be produced in a closed-loop fashion, we reason, then we would be able to conserve at least some of the resources that would otherwise be extracted.  Presumably, such conservation is needed for ecosystemic preservation, not just to boost the economic fortunes of the plastics industry.

Now let’s turn to the huge, multinational firms in the petrochemical industry that drill for the precursor materials for plastics at the beginning of the production chain.  Let’s say more Americans recycled their plastics, and this resulted in an influx of more recycled plastic onto the market. Even with robust closed loops achieved, does anyone really think that the executives at one of these multinationals would get to the point of saying, “well, you know, it’s good that the need for input materials is being met by recycled plastic, and that means that this year we can scale back production a bit. We don’t need to open up a new offshore platform. It isn’t required to meet society’s needs after all!”

Ultimately, this would have to be the scenario in which more and more recycling of plastics actually preserved things that matter ecologically and socially. Yet very little of the empirical work needed to trace materials flows exists in the area of plastics recycling, in part because of a dearth of data.16 And in the area of plastics waste we have perhaps the most egregious misuse of claims that recycling is going to address problems related to pollution and climate change.  The industry, and affiliated academic researchers, carry out life-cycle analyses that are impeccable in their methodological approach to quantifying different energy and material requirements associated with primary and secondary flows of plastics.17

None to my knowledge, however, answer the question of what more plastics recycling would do to diminish overall ecosystem withdrawals of fossil fuels.  Does tar-sands extraction slow as a result? How about pipeline construction?  Perhaps, with improved plastics recycling, we don’t need a Northeast U.S. expansion of storage capacity for hydrofractured natural gas.  Not yet? Well, then, what are the plans for the scaleback?

Ideological Implications

These are both empirical and ideological questions. 18 They are ideological because a general optimism about recycling as earth-saving has become internalized in the thought processes of children and adults genuinely concerned about preservation.  In everyday speak, assumptions of conservation and preservation swirl in a distant, misty background. In order to preserve optimism, can-doism, and a solutions oriented outlook it is easier not to look into these depths. In fact, critique of recycling’s earth-saving claims falls harshly on concerned ears, leaving bewilderment and a sense of betrayal. Sometimes, it is met with a binary response: either recycling is part of an overall process of saving resources and saving energy and by extension it’s saving the planet, or it’s a waste of time and it’s a sham and a lie.  

I would urge all who are interested in this kind of thing to move away from binaries.  The alternative is uncertain and less morally satisfying. It requires taking multiple perspectives, and wading through material complexity, power relations, institutional arrangements, and ideological maneuvering around recycling, asking again and again how, or even if, this or that initiative — often proudly and cheerfully announced by a consortium of producers — preserves things that matter. It also means looking at how recycling actually takes place in any particular place and time, not just under modelled conditions.  Some of this work involves redirecting outrage.  So, for example, if recycling plants are unable to sell recycled plastics because of market slumps, it is less morally shocking than a reflection of market conditions that they will landfill them instead?  When people ask me about the crisis in North American plastics and paper recycling, which China’s trade policies has brought about, I’m tempted to respond, “what did you expect?” Recycling firms are tails wagged by massive dogs: neither evil, nor earth-saving, but actually a reflection of the organization of material exchange under the global market system, today.  

In part, the potential for recycling to actually conserve and preserve is an empirical question, and the answers will vary from place to place and material to material. But it’s not just a matter of collecting data, or organizing the right technical systems. It also means recognizing that recycling as we know it may start with an ethical impulse, but materially translates into nothing more or less than a set of business practices. As with the 19th and early 20th scrap trades, recycling is part of smart industrial operations (nothing wrong with that).  But let us dismantle the faith that recycling, as practiced currently, will save the earth if we do more of it.  Affirming this ideal is a potent tool used by powerful networks of big producers, big extractors, and constellations of firms at the global level. Make no mistake, they are undertaking this strategy daily, with increasing sophistication. They understand the nuances of material sourcing, production volumes, input substitution, and property acquisition all too well. They rely on the fact that you don’t — and, in fact, can’t — because much of the data you would need for such an understanding is proprietary to them.

It is no easy feat to press producers to explain how recycling stands to scale back their operations, reduce their net output, or redress the ravages they have left behind.  Such questions are typically outside the scope of a particular recycling project; easy to evade. As a group, these are smart folks. They know which NGOs to fund, which scholars to support, and where to make public appearances. They even understand the critiques that come out of discard studies, so they start to speak of “plasticity” instead of plastics; and they use the term “litter” to name the crisis of marine plastics.   

But if you are in a position to do so, politely ask corporate spokespeople how the tonnage they take credit for recycling fed back into their operations last year, in a specific country, and how it in turn measurably reduced virgin extraction. Be specific. Ask them where and when it led to a reduced material throughput in their company or industry.  Query them on the documented, not speculative, environmental protection afforded by, say, making cheap picture frames made out of spent polystyrene packaging. Reject the notion that cheap picture frames are a social good that would have needed to be manufactured with fracked natural gas, had polystyrene recycling not yielded up secondary inputs.   

In the meantime, sit for a while to contemplate the fact that recycling, as it exists today, does not in fact save ecosystems in a way that matters on the whole ecologically or socially.  How would recycling need to be practiced to achieve this desired end? In a different context of extraction, production, and growth – with different politics, knowledge structures, and ideologies. I realize this is an unsatisfying conclusion, but I believe in the importance of critique as a precondition to developing collaborative solutions. I have presented this information as part of a process of thinking through short-, medium- and long-term characteristics of this different context. This is an ongoing project to which I invite responses, as well as empirical contributions that would refine or refute what I have presented here.

 

Footnotes

  1. Hays, S. (1999). Conservation and the gospel of efficiency: The progressive conservation movement, 1890–1920. No. 40. University of Pittsburgh Press.
  2. See Guha,R. (YEAR). “Radical American environmentalism and wilderness preservation: a third world critique” Environmental Ethics 11, no. 1:71–83; Faber, D., and D. McCarthy. “Neo-liberalism, globalization and the struggle for ecological democracy: linking sustainability and environmental justice.” Just sustainabilities: Development in an unequal world (2003): 38-63.
  3. See Geyer, R. et. al. (2016) “Common Misconceptions about Recycling” Journal of Industrial Ecology 20, no. 5: 1010–17
  4. Jevons, W. S. (1866) The coal question: an inquiry concerning the progress of the nation, and the probable exhaustion of our coal-mines. London, UK: Macmillan and Company .
  5. See Alcott, B. (2005). “Jevons’ paradox” Ecological Economics 54, no. 1: 9–21. 
  6. See Dimitropoulos, J. (2007). “Energy productivity improvements and the rebound effect: an overview of the state of knowledge.” Energy Policy 35, no. 12: 6354–63.
  7. I am grateful to Bruce Lankford for helping me clarify this.  See Lankford, B. (2013) Resource efficiency complexity and the commons: the paracommons and paradoxes of natural resource losses, wastes and wastages. London: Routledge.
  8.  See Modaresi, R. and D.B. Müller. (2012) “The role of automobiles for the future of aluminum recycling.” Environmental Science & Technology 46, no. 16: 8587–8594.
  9.  OECD (2019), Global material resources outlook to 2060: economic drivers and environmental consequences. Paris: OECD Publishing
  10.  The closest I have come to identifying such a body is the OECD, which has published interesting research on the this subject for a range of materials, but not plastics.  OECD (2019), http://www.oecd.org/environment/global-material-resources-outlook-to-2060-9789264307452-en.htm   
  11.  The OECD writes that, “Recycling is projected to become more competitive compared to the extraction of primary materials,” but that, “The strong increase in demand for materials implies that both primary and secondary materials use increase at roughly the same speed.” OECD (2019), p. 3
  12.  Most estimates cite to data from the British Petroleum Federation, http://www.bpf.co.uk/press/oil_consumption.aspx
  13.  Energy Information Administration (EIA).2018. “How much oil is used to make plastic?” accessed 1/29/2019 at  https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=34&t=6.
  14.  EIA 2018.
  15.  The plastics industry is careful about how it phrases conservation claims in its public relations.  It tends to talk about the importance of growing plastics recycling to jobs, litter cleanup, and generally as an end unto itself.
  16.  Geyer, R. et. al. (2017) “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made.” Science Advances 3, no. 7
  17.  The Plastics Division of the American Chemistry Council (2018). “Life Cycle Impacts of Plastic Packaging Compared To Substitutes in the United States and Canada” accessed 1/29/2019 at  https://plastics.americanchemistry.com/Plastic-Packaging-Life-Cycle-Study/
  18.  See Lifset, R.(1995). “Foreward”, in Ince, P. What won’t get harvested, where, and when: the effects of increased paper recycling on timber harvest, Yale University School of Forestry and Environment.

3 thoughts on “Does recycling actually conserve or preserve things?

  1. Thanks for this commentary. You raise (and answer eloquently) questions I have been considering for years. I find the “shift to nuance” a comforting one, actually, because it helps me start to realistically discuss the ideas surrounding recycling, rather than spouting axioms that I learned along the way but haven’t reconsidered for some time.

    I do have a question that I don’t feel is addressed here, and that would be related to waste diversion. Products which are recycled can lessen the burden on landfills, and there is a potential for minimizing environmental harms in this way. I am wondering – is a measurable benefit from recycling that can be (or has been) considered? This is neither a conservation nor preservation mechanism, but it seems like another step in the recycling lifestyle.

    Thanks!

  2. Rebecca, thanks for your comments. Pollution reduction from landfill, incineration, litter, and transport is a separate issue from conservation/preservation, also nuanced, that I will address in a future post.

    • Thanks, I look forward to reading it!

      (by the way, yesterday I recycled a cup and felt an initial moment of futility, followed by a deeper resolution to take meaningful action… I’m not sure if that is part of the goal of this essay, but certainly one thing I took away from it.)

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