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Are We Recycling Too Much of Our Trash?

Recycling up to 10% appears to reduce social costs, but any recycling over 10% costs the environment and the economy more than it helps

Recycling is a cornerstone of green building, but the author suggests research doesn't have much to say about the costs and benefits of recycling, and the optimum recycling rate might be much lower than we assume.
Image Credit: via Flickr

A recent credible study suggests the amount of waste Americans dispose in landfills each year is over twice what the EPA had been estimating.

Although this news may not surprise the country’s disposal facilities (who already knew the quantity of waste they take in), the study may strike an old nerve for many Americans – that our society generates too much garbage. The answer, we have been repeatedly told, is to recycle our waste. In fact, plans for zero waste or 100% recycling have been hatched in places including Berkeley, California, and Indianapolis, Indiana.

But is more recycling always better than less recycling? Is it conceivable that society can recycle too much? What does the research say about the costs and benefits of recycling?

Unfortunately, not much data are available. We may sense that more recycling is better than less recycling, but we really do not know. Our recycling habits developed not in the wake of a scientific understanding of these matters but perhaps, as John Tierney describes in his recent New York Times piece, on a leap of faith.

Last year, I coauthored a research study to estimate society’s optimal recycling rate. Results surprised us: society’s best recycling rate is only 10%. And only specific recyclable materials should be included in that 10%. What drives these results?

The literature on recycling

First, dozens of published economic studies from across the globe estimate that landfills depress neighboring property values, although this negative impact appears to diminish for small landfills. Second, a growing number of published life-cycle analyses suggest that mining raw materials is damaging to the natural environment, and manufacturing goods with recycled materials rather than their virgin counterparts can be beneficial to the environment. But the magnitude of these benefits varies across materials.

Finally, the economics literature suggests recycling requires more economic resources than simple waste disposal. The value of the extra energy, labor, and machinery necessary to prepare materials for recycling can double the value of those resources needed to dispose the material in the landfill.

Our study made the first known attempt to combine these various costs and benefits into one analysis to estimate what recycling rate is best. Our conclusion was that recycling up to 10% appears to reduce social costs, but any recycling over 10% costs the environment and the economy more than it helps. The environment and economy suffer as we transport some recycled materials to destinations as far afield as China.

These provocative results certainly require confirmation from future independent and objective research before broad policy goals can be adjusted. Also, many of the benefits and costs associated with waste disposal and recycling vary across regions of the country and world, and thus optimal recycling rates may also vary. For example, we used municipal cost data from Japan for this study because the United States and most European countries do not keep such data.

But if these results hold for other developed countries, then society should collectively rethink how to approach recycling.

Detailing the costs of waste and recycling

This paper identified several factors that help justify possible reductions in the recycling rate.

First, the environmental damages associated with both modern landfills and incineration plants turn out to be less than traditionally imagined. These facilities certainly depress neighboring property values – on average each ton of waste deposited in a landfill or incinerated is found to reduce property values by about $4.

But modern disposal facilities in most developed countries are required to abide by strict environmental standards, and air and water pollutants such as methane and carbon generated by these facilities (and the carbon monoxide and consumption from the trucks transporting waste to these facilities) appear less than previously expected. These environmental standards have increased disposal costs (tipping fees) paid by waste generators by as much as $50 per ton, but the remaining external costs have fallen to roughly $5 per ton disposed. Thus, collectively waste disposal facilities generate just $9 per ton in external costs borne by society ($4 from depressed property values plus $5 from remaining air and water pollutants). Economists had once imagined external costs of $67 per ton to as much as $280 per ton.

But because these costs do not appear on the balance sheet of the disposal facility, the assessment of a corrective tax of $9 per ton disposed is necessary for disposal facilities to consider these costs when making decisions. Once this tax is in place, then laws requiring municipalities to recycle can be lifted.

Second, recycling is rather costly to municipal governments. The cost for New York City to process one ton of materials for recycling markets is about $300 more than the cost of simply taking that same material to the landfill, according to the recent New York Times article. In many cases, the travel itinerary for recycled materials, which increasingly includes final destinations in developing countries, exceeds by large margins the distance that garbage is transported.

Third, we found the primary benefits of recycling accrue not from saving landfill space but from generating materials that, when used in production, are less costly to the environment than mining those materials from the earth. Our study concludes that using an average ton of certain recycled materials in the place of a ton of virgin materials generates environmental spillover benefits of as much as $400 per ton.

By the way, this monetary estimate (and all dollar estimates associated with environmental considerations) is calculated using two processes. First, the life-cycle analysis identifies the physical quantity of carbon, sulfur, nitrates and other pollutants associated with the entire life cycle of waste and recycling systems. Second, the economics literature has developed per-dollar estimates of the impact each unit of pollutant costs society. Each ton of carbon, for example, has been estimated to generate $25 of damage to the natural environment.

Targeted recycling

But the substantial environmental benefits outlined above of using recycled materials in production vary substantially across materials. Aluminum and other metals are environmentally costly to mine and prepare for production. Paper, too, is costly to manufacture from raw sources. But glass and plastic appear relatively easy on the environment when manufactured from raw materials.

These differences are vital. Although the optimal overall recycling rate may be only 10%, the composition of that 10% should contain primarily aluminum, other metals, and some forms of paper, notably cardboard and other sources of fiber. Optimal recycling rates for these materials may be near 100% while optimal rates of recycling plastic and glass might be zero. To encourage this outcome, a substantial subsidy offered only on those materials whose life cycles generate positive environmental benefits should be applied.

In the end, the economy and the environment, speaking in one unified voice, may wish for society to reduce the overall quantity of waste recycled. Perhaps recycling efforts need to surgically focus on only those specific materials that really matter to the economy and the environment. Other materials can be simply disposed of in modern facilities.

Thomas Kinnaman is a professor of economics at Bucknell University. This column was originally published at The Conversation.


  1. user-349933 | | #1

    If it feels good just do it!
    What politician will ever get elected if they proposed to recycle less? What waste hauler would ever get a contract if they started to reduce the number of items they would allow to be recycled?

    Maybe the study is neglecting to see the value of the good feelings we have when we recycle even if it doesn't make any economic sense. Most things we do probably don't make economic sense but provide some other value to our lives. Why should recycling be any different?

    The volume of waste water we create is far larger than the volume of solid waste we produce. My household of six pushes one partially full 96 gallon trash can of solid waste every week out to the street. If we were an average user of water and pushed out the waste water to the street in the same trash cans we would fill 52 cans ever week. Trash compacts waste water doesn't. Maybe it is time to take a closer look at the volume of waste water we create and see if it make more "cents" to reduce it?

  2. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #2

    Response to Dan Vandermolen
    Q. "Most things we do probably don't make economic sense but provide some other value to our lives. Why should recycling be any different?"

    A. It shouldn't. But if recycling damages the envirornment -- by wasting the energy used to make hot water that we use to rinse out glass peanut butter jars and plastic yogurt containers, or by wasting the energy used to fill large trucks with items that are hauled for many miles to recycling facilities -- then it behooves us to determine whether the carbon emissions associated with making that hot water and fueling those trucks are doing more harm to the planet than can be justified by the glass and plastic items being recycled.

  3. dankolbert | | #3

    Plastic disposal?
    Do you know, Martin, if the study accounted for the cost of the environmental impact of plastic disposal?

  4. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #4

    Response to Dan Kolbert
    It sounds like they did. This article notes, "First, the environmental damages associated with both modern landfills and incineration plants turn out to be less than traditionally imagined. These facilities certainly depress neighboring property values – on average each ton of waste deposited in a landfill or incinerated is found to reduce property values by about $4. But modern disposal facilities in most developed countries are required to abide by strict environmental standards, and air and water pollutants such as methane and carbon generated by these facilities (and the carbon monoxide and consumption from the trucks transporting waste to these facilities) appear less than previously expected."

    So the economic cost of disposal includes the depression of neighboring property values. The environmental cost of disposal includes air pollution and water pollution, as well as the environmental costs of the transportation needed to move the trash to the landfill.

    Some environmental costs are unquantifiable, of course, which I imagine is your point. If I have walked my dog in a meadow for 15 years, and the meadow is turned into a landfill, how does one quantify the value of the lost dog-walking paths? One can't.

  5. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #5

    This whole discussion is a bit pathetic without the math.
    This is pretty frothy stuff with no substance in evidence.

    In the NYT article they drag out classics like,

    "New York and other cities instruct people to rinse the bottles before putting them in the recycling bin, but the E.P.A.’s life-cycle calculation doesn’t take that water into account. That single omission can make a big difference, according to Chris Goodall, the author of “How to Live a Low-Carbon Life.” Mr. Goodall calculates that if you wash plastic in water that was heated by coal-derived electricity, then the net effect of your recycling could be more carbon in the atmosphere."

    Really? Show the math.

    THEN show where in the US coal derived electricity is use for heating water.

    THEN show how many people are actually rinsing the stuff in heated water.

    Sure- if you take the worst possible scenarios you can make any straw-man look pretty bad, but that's not the same as analysis.

    The whole tone of this article is along the lines of "We have done the analysis, and this is the real answer." but devoid of the detail on the actual analysis & data.

    Clicking on the " a research study" link you find out in the introduction that the data behind the analysis is exclusively from Japan (not exactly perfect paradigm for the economics in the US) , but the actual article is behind a pay -wall. So who knows what, if any, credibility these conclusions really deserve? Since Thomas Kinnaman calls it "A recent credible study...", we are to assume that it is? (Because he surely knows, being a professor of economics and all... ;-) )

    That's no substitute for the actual data and analysis, none of which is adequately described in either the NYT article or The Conversation blog.

  6. AlanB4 | | #6

    This makes little sense
    Environmental impact is about more then carbon emissions, non renewable items rise in price as they become more scarce and will eventually be depleted. If we are talking about renewable items or infinite goods that don't damage ecosystems then there is some possible merit.
    Of course we should look to minimize carbon emissions, but trading carbon over depletion of non renewable resources is a false choice. Also how does one contain methane on an open landfill, and leachate over time does leak from even lined landfills, it would be nice if it did not.
    Is $25 a ton actually a proper cost of carbon?

    I wish i could agree with this article.

  7. HansenJC | | #7

    What about the cost to Sea Life?
    Thomas Kinnaman - Obviously there is a leak in the waste stream that is causing the garbage debris areas in the oceans. What would it cost to stop that leak. Would you defend the sloppy waste management practices and lifestyles that are causing this issue with your headline question: "Are We Recycling Too Much of Our Trash?"
    Perhaps if you had asked the question: "Why are we so complacent and doing so little about our wasteful habits?" We may learn that we (all of mankind) are simply willing to pay the current price. Will that price hold into the future?
    I see nothing in this post about the issue of plastics that make their way into the ocean. What is the cost to remediate it, or the cost in terms of marine life damage if we continue to add to the floating debris areas in our oceans. What is the cost to maintain the status quo and do nothing. It seems logical to me that this problem with plastic in our oceans is not natural. Where are these costs in the equation?
    Perhaps you should simply take issue with the fact that two different (groups of) economists come up with very different answers when asked: What does our waste management actually cost?" This post seems to be more about economic calculations than it is about our personal and collective motivation to recycle more or less.
    Please take off your calculator's hat and put on your human hat for this particular topic.

  8. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #8

    GBA readers are raising important issues
    Most recycling programs -- including the recycling programs in my home state of Vermont -- were mandated without any kind of life-cycle analysis. We need to be asking the questions raised by Thomas Kinnaman, or we are at risk of increasing carbon emissions -- carbon emissions that are known to be injurious to our atmosphere -- in pursuit of very small environmental benefits.

    Recycling is not a religion. It is one possible tactic we use to lessen our environmental impact. But our lifestyles have many environmental impacts -- our depredation of the planet is like an octopus, reaching in almost all directions. We need to acknowledge that our garbage trucks and our hot water usage represent tentacles of this octopus -- so our use of garbage trucks (or freighters loaded with waste headed to China) needs to be analyzed.

    Several GBA readers have suggested that Thomas Kinnaman's calculations may have left something out. These are good criticisms, which Kinnaman may or may not be able to answer. But let's sharpen our pencils, and (as Dana Dorsett suggests) look at the math, rather than assuming on faith that recycling our peanut jars and yogurt containers is necessarily good for the planet.

  9. Calloused_Thumb | | #9

    We should analyze everything,
    We should analyze everything, cradle-to-grave, if we really want to know our impact on this rock. I'll repeat some points I've read elsewhere. First is the downside to single-stream recycling (where it all goes in one bin to be sorted later). Those programs increased participation, but contamination problems are very high, which runs up the cost at the sorting facility. Next, today's truckload (by volume) contains less valuable material than the same truck 15-20 years ago, since manufacturers are making things thinner and with materials less amenable to resale as raw material. Last, commodity prices in general have fallen. UPSHOT: Cost of recycling programs are increasing, while commodity prices are falling... I've read that some places have canned or greatly curtailed their recycling programs.

  10. AlanB4 | | #10

    Where are we going to put
    Where are we going to put extra landfill, we have little space left in Ontario that will accept it, we have been exporting our garbage to the US, which is surprisingly happy to take it (a few dollars seems to make the difference, and empty mines).

    I am the first to say we need to reduce carbon emissions, but replacing one bad idea with another bad idea makes little sense. It would make more sense to look for better solutions such as investing in electric (eventually solar) powered recycling trucks then to say we need more landfills to reduce carbon (short term).

    The only point i can see to this article is that replacing one bad idea with another bad idea does not make a good idea. I lied, its always good to collect and analyze data, but making bad decisions based on good data is not a winning solution. We should be moving towards no landfill at all because landfills have major environmental costs and lock up non renewable resources forever (since the cost of remining them later will always be much higher then if they were recycled now), and just because we say its lower in todays dollars does not make it a good idea. Maybe some of that corporate welfare can be used to pay the difference, its not trickling down anyways.

    There are also other solutions to climate change, an analogous solution is we could give up technology and go back to pre industrial technology. It would cut carbon emissions, provide jobs and keep everyone busy. Or we can use technology to create better batteries, increase carbon free energy production and use technology to clean up the messes we have already made and to find ways to not create future messes. Which option would win more public support?

    For some reason this reminds me of some bad B movie i heard about years ago where the evil bad guy was going to destroy the world by stealing all the garbage, its considered so worthless that stealing it would be simple, and nobody realized how much it contributed to society's functioning and would cause massive collapse once it was gone. I wish i could remember the name of that movie.

  11. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #11

    Response to Alan B
    I'm not in favor of "more landfills." I'm in favor of reducing our trash volume.

    That said, using our landfills wisely does not necessarily require the creation of new landfills. Moreover, some existing unlined landfills probably need to be retired in favor of better designed lined landfills, regardless of our recycling plans.

    Every expert who has looked into the issue has concluded that we aren't running out of places for landfill.

    The larger issue here is development. The creation of a new lined landfill is a type of development, and it's a shame to see a forest or other undeveloped land turned into a landfill. But it's also painful to see a new WalMart go up, or a new airport, or a new lane on our interstate highway system, or a new suburban residential development 40 miles away from the nearest job.

    Developing undeveloped land should never be done heedlessly. But all kinds of land development happens every day in the U.S., and landfills make up only a tiny percentage of our development problem.

  12. AlanB4 | | #12

    I can't in any way disagree
    I can't in any way disagree with reducing trash volume

    As long as the US is happy to take our trash i suppose its no harm to export it (except those carbon emissions). We have been working on diversion plans because of space and cost issues (southern Ontario), my municipality was aiming for 65% diversion and introduced green bins for organic waste, i remember reading they hit 41% a few years ago, i'm not sure where they are at today.
    Also yard waste is no longer landfilled, its also composted, reducing methane generated.

  13. LucyF | | #13

    Guest bloggers need to agree to reply to comments
    When a guest blogger writes an article for GBA I think they have an obligation to respond to the comments especially in a well-moderated civil forum such as this. I understand that they wouldn't want to step in the fray where the comments are just a free-for-all to insult people but that is not the case here.

    Now to the topic at hand - mostly we need to buy less crap, specifically plastic crap.

  14. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #14

    Response to Lucy Foxworth
    I have sent an e-mail to Thomas Kinnaman, asking him to post a response to the comments on this page.

  15. dankolbert | | #15

    Well put
    One of the reasons I never use the words "green" or "sustainable" to describe my company is that I very much disagree with the notion that there's some way to consume our way out of the problem. Recycling may also give that idea credence. The other 2 parts of the triangle (reduce, re-use) are far more important.

  16. ianmacalister | | #16

    Three Rs
    Too much emphasis is given to the third R: recycling. In terms of environmental impact, the Rs are in a deliberate order: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

    Reduce: Don't buy it. Do you really need it? Can you get it second hand, borrow it or rent it? Most of us already have too much stuff. Buy bottled water? Are you nuts? Why can't you carry a refillable water bottle? Filled at the tap. Do you need to show your love and affection with stuff?

    Reuse: Hand-me-downs are great. Put it out on the sidewalk with a sign: FREE. Kijiji or other used-goods websites for buying, selling, giving or getting free stuff.. Bulletin board at work, grocery store, school, place-of-worship. Make something out of material already on hand. Dumpster-dive for fun and profit.

    Recycle: Much less necessary after diligent, thoughtful application of Reduce and Reuse.

  17. Fumbletrumpet | | #17

    It's an imperfect world.........
    What a refreshing article to read. For too long 'Green Issues' have been espoused by some with religious fervour and by others (who are against them) with ignorant politically motivated distain. Perhaps, like most other things in life, it's about balance - and getting that balance as near as we can to 'right'. There is clearly a gradation of value in materials and that must be a function of costs to make and costs to re-use. If we totally ignore the costs (and they are dollars, scarcity and lifecycle damage costs) we often end up putting the cart before the horse. We must be prepared to quantify and analyse these costs. And then decide based on 'bang for the buck'.

    Like it or not most of the world gravitates towards capitalism because economics generate the incentive to do something. Doing something just because it 'feels' right implies that the doer has the time, capacity (wealth ?) to do it for principle alone. But in other cultures and countries this is less likely to work.

    There's more to this than 'feeling good' - we've hopefully moved )or are moving) beyond the consumer guilt phase. It's now about sustaining sustainability and that includes making sure that sensible things keep on happening. If sensible actions don't stack economically (and punitive taxes alone are not a sustainable way to achieve this long term) then we should be very prepared to questions them.

    Finally, recycling IS important, but I'd argue that it isn't near the top of the steep slope of the sustainability pareto curve. It's an easier one to move some way with and we've made a good start, but there's bigger nuts to crack (population is probably one of them) before we get too hung up on recycling for its own sake. Interesting that glass isn't such a valued commodity though, and I guess quality has a lot to do with this, which is where the recycled paper argument often comes unstuck.

  18. user-2335967 | | #18

    Interesting to get another perspective
    I've been recycling forever and as a scientist I've wondered about the science (or lack of it) surrounding the issue. Some things made sense, others not so much. I toured an alternative energy plant in Indiana that was running 16 methane powered generators off a landfill. It was earning money. However they mentioned that not all landfills were profitable. The landfill in Northeast Indiana where the RV companies would not be profitable due to the lack of organic matter required to produce the methane. Hmmm...leaves are banned from landfill near me and I compost all my kitchen scraps for the garden. Perhaps folks SHOULD be allowed to dump leaves in a landfill. Most burn them (which is making for a miserable fall) in my area.
    Regarding the comment about the plastic in oceans...It's kinda off point as no one is promoting landfills in the ocean. Of course we need to keep plastic out of the environment.
    Another quick point is that in the future these landfills will be quite valuable regardless of the costs to mine them. Think about it. All the different valuable materials in ONE SPOT!!! Everything you mine has a potential use other than simply being a mill tailing. Actually you could throw what you don't require at the time BACK into the landfill for future use.
    Just some thoughts....I'm still recycling and using my compost to grow some awesome tomatoes and peppers!

  19. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #19

    Burning leaves?
    Local air pollution laws prohibit that sort of behavior in my neighborhood! In urban areas many/most cities in my area collect and compost leaves rather than landfilling or incinerating them.

  20. Chaubenee | | #20

    Glass bottles
    May not have value as recycled glass but when crushed make excellent sub-base and drainage ditch aggregate. It is something some municipalities tried and I think it would reduce mining for bank run and crusher run and other aggregate for municipalities and private concerns. That being said, I recall when recycling was first instituted and my dear, late Dad would have a sink full of tin cans, jars, and plastic good containers all soaking in hot soapy water. I recall trying to talk him out of doing that. I figured he had the most sterile recyclables in town, but thinking about it made me wonder if millions of like others were simply wasting water, soap, and energy to heat the water just so that they could "comply" with the government mandate of having "clean" recycled trash at the curb. Often when the commodity markets were down, or the municipal trucks were broken, I would see the trash men throw the recyclables directly into the garbage truck with the other trash while on their rounds, creating further skepticism in my mind.

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