Interrogating the recycling religion

I have always loved doing recycling but been sceptical of its real value. Now, much of the time I don’t even like doing it. The difficulty is that the campaigns for and against recycling seem equally, well, less than robustly frank.

Here’s the nub of the thing. Pure recycling (in the sense of recovery of the material resources locked up in waste) sometimes works wonderfully. But waste handlers are increasingly finding ways of getting energy back from waste. The new energy-from-waste techniques are carbon-efficient, and even “old” incineration and landfill are getting cleverer in that regard.

Here’s a go at untangling some of the issues.

(1) We all have to do recycling because years ago the UK gave into the EU about pretending to hate landfill. Since then it has been in no-one’s interest to question the economics or ecology of the pro-recycing, anti-landfill and anti-incineration mantras.

(2) The unholy alliance in favour of recycling included government, NGOs and waste management firms (who profit much more from recycling than landfill).

(2) Ever since global warming became the main focus of environmental policy, it was often claimed but seldom usefully argued that recycling always saved greenhouse gas emissions in an important way. (This all happened long after we were committed to lots of recycling anyway.)

(3) The best evidence about whether recycling is economically or ecologically sound usually comes with many serious caveats which stress that its benefits can be real but are marginal and highly dependent on the assumptions made. That doesn’t stop its fans over-egging things. WRAP (a Quango which bigs-up recycling) seems to have read very selectively one important government-sponsored (ERM) study of this sort.

Here’s a key bit from the ERM report which was commissioned by the UK department charged with delivering more recycling:

Findings illustrate that some materials and management routes show significant potential for greenhouse gas emission and fossil energy demand savings. Although there are a number of uncertainties (see below), the largest potential, over and above current recovery efforts, is with regard to: energy recovery via anaerobic digestion of agricultural manures/slurries; energy recovery via combustion of waste wood; recovery of both resources (through recycling) and energy (through combustion) from waste paper and card; and recycling of non-ferrous metals.

The energy benefits estimated for these materials and management routes equate to a combined saving in the region of 88 to 202 PJ-equivalents per year over the period assessed. This is equivalent to approximately 1-3% of UK energy consumption in 2003.

This is something short of a ringing endorsement of resource-recovery recycling.

(4) Landfill, composting, incineration and various forms of treatment can all be tweaked to be much better on global warming grounds than is supposed. Pure recycling (that is, for material recovery) is also subject to environmental improvement, of course.

(5) Waste makes a rather small (3 percent) contribution to UK greenhouse gases and it follows that improvements to it cannot be a saviour. Interestingly, landfill was and is the biggest contributor to waste’s contribution, but technical reforms to its management (mostly big increases in methane capture) have also starred as one of the biggest reductions made by any sector. This trend may well continue.

(6) Some of these arguments are reinforced by data in Building a low-carbon economy: The UK’s contribution to tackling climate change. (The First Report of the Committee on Climate Change, December 2008). This document is interesting in stressing that much of the GHC improvement from the waste sector could come from energy recovery (not pure recycling).

(7) Hating recycling is also usually absurd. It isn’t necessarily a no-no that markets for recycled material are not stable, as seems to be the main beef. Nor does it necessarily matter that we haven’t yet got the recycling technology down pat. (We haven’t got any waste technologies perfect yet.)

(8) I now loathe much of the recycling I have to do. I’ll mend bikes and patch and repair a wide range of stuff and store waste metal and batteries and I positively like the green garden waste bin. But fiddling about with separating glass (and lugging it to the litter-strewn bank), and keeping a bin for paper and tins and cans but only a few plastics (the option where I live) is fiddly and messy.

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Publication date

30 January 2009