Many towns and cities in the U.S. have halted or scaled back their curbside recycling programs in an effort to reduce costs. But this is a misguided approach when it comes to fighting climate change, according to a new study.
“Eliminating recycling squanders one of the easiest opportunities for communities and citizens to mitigate climate change and reduce natural resources demands,” the researchers write in the journal Nature Sustainability.
Markets for secondhand commodities such as newspaper, aluminum cans, and plastic bottles are notoriously volatile, and have been further affected by global recessions and the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, the move in many locations to collect all recyclables in a single bin in combination with policy changes by countries such as China that accept exported recyclables have made sorting and cleaning recyclables more complex and expensive.
Still, until now there was little hard data on how the cost effectiveness of recycling shakes out, particularly in relation to its environmental benefits. In the new study, researchers set out to ground-truth local governments’ claims that recycling programs are too expensive. They modeled the costs and greenhouse gas emissions associated with waste management services for a typical U.S. household in order to compare the costs of garbage collection and recycling, and find out under what circumstances recycling programs would be able to break even.
It’s true that collecting recyclables separately is almost always more expensive than simply sending all household garbage to the landfill. “The expense of collecting and separating bottles, cans and paper products exceeds the resale value of the recovered materials,” the researchers report.
But placed in larger context, the cost is relatively modest. When the value of recycled materials was at its highest in 2011, the cost of providing curbside recycling services amounted to just $3 per household per year, the researchers calculated. When recyclable values were at their minimum from 2018 through 2020, the cost spiked to $34 to $42 per household per year.
But even at worst, a recycling program increases waste-management costs by just 24% compared to a system in which all garbage is sent to the landfill.
The researchers argue that curbside recycling should be viewed as “a government service provided to residents, akin to providing energy and water, managing garbage and wastewater and maintaining roads and public spaces.”
What’s more, recycling is pretty good as climate action goes. Curbside recycling saves enough carbon emissions to roughly compensate for the emissions of garbage sent to the landfill (which releases methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, as it decomposes).
On average, a waste-management system with curbside recycling costs about 13% more than a system with garbage collection only, but has is associated with six-fold lower greenhouse gas emissions sixfold.
Curbside recycling programs are also cost-effective as a climate action strategy. Per dollar spent, recycling saves a similar amount of carbon emissions as either switching to an electric vehicle or purchasing green power in the worst-case scenario when prices for recyclables are low. When recyclable prices are high, the return on investment is even better.
The researchers also analyzed potential changes to recycling programs to explore how they could be made cheaper without compromising their climate benefit. For example, if communities eliminate glass recycling but increase collection of the highest-value and most carbon-intensive recyclables – newspaper, cardboard, aluminum and steel cans, HDPE and PET plastic bottles – then both costs and carbon emissions go down.
Such a move “may not be popular with avid recyclers,” the researchers note, “but too many of the wrong materials in the recycling bin hinders optimization of the recycling system.” Recycling a smaller suite of materials, but in a more uniform way across different cities and communities, might make for easier sorting and a larger percentage of collected materials actually getting recycled, they say.
Local governments cold also bring down the cost of recycling and help insulate programs from volatile secondary commodity markets by making manufacturers responsible for some recycling costs, known as extended producer responsibility, and mandating a certain amount of recycled material in packaging.
Source: Anshassi M. and T. Townsend “The hidden economic and environmental costs of eliminating kerb-side recycling.” Nature Sustainability 2023.
Top Image: City of St. Pete via Flickr.