The economics of recycling

Some are skeptical about whether recycling even works...
29 October 2019

Interview with 

Roland Geyer, UCSB Bren School


Waste plastic bottles


Recycling isn’t just a technological problem - it’s an economic one as well. At every stage, from individuals washing out juice cartons, to waste management companies selling great bales of recyclable plastic, it comes down to incentives. And some people are skeptical about whether it even works. Roland Geyer is one of those people - he’s a professor of industrial ecology at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management in California. Adam Murphy heard his opinion of the state of recycling...

Roland - The only environmental point of recycling is to displace primary material production, which means that turning scrap into secondary material needs to be cost-competitive with primary material production, and also the secondary material needs to have technical specifications that are similar or ideally equal to those of primary material. For plastic in particular, the economics of plastic recycling simply don't work. And you could say it in two ways: you could say plastic recycling is too expensive, or you could say virgin plastic production is too cheap.

Adam - Does that mean as well that when you use something for plastic and you recycle it, it has to be used in something of lower quality at the moment?

Roland - Very often that is true. It is not necessarily true, but in practice right now the way we design our products makes it difficult then to get a clean, single-polymer stream of recycled material. The way we use it and collect it, it becomes contaminated. And plastic is a vast group of very different materials, so if you want to recycle plastic, you actually need to separate the different polymer types.

Adam - Why is it then that recycling doesn't reduce the amount of primary material that we use?

Roland - Unfortunately there’s not just a single reason, there are actually several reasons. First of all if you want a competitive recycled secondary material, you have a couple of hurdles that you have to take to get to that point. You need a well-designed collection system that allows you to then separate the polymers and keep contamination to a minimum. The next hurdle is you need good recycling technology. So you need something that really works for the type of scrap that you've collected. The next hurdle’s that you actually need a market for your secondary resource that you just generated. There are many recycled plastics that are not very desirable, so no-one really wants to use it to put it into their products. And to make things worse, even if you have a fairly desirable secondary material, there is no law of nature that... you know, physics doesn't say that if we increase our secondary plastic production, primary plastic production has to come down. This is a market-mediated effect.

Adam - If when we recycle something we introduce impurities, and we keep recycling, does that not mean even with the best of intentions, everything we have is going to end up in landfill eventually?

Roland -  Every single unit of material that we produce will become waste. It's literally impossible to keep material in circulation forever. And the buildup of contaminants is one of the reasons why I firmly believe that the best you can do is get multiple cycles out of a material. But it's not even clear how many exactly. In fact with plastic, we studied globally the circulation of secondary plastic, we think that the vast majority of recycled plastic gets exactly one additional cycle, and then it becomes basically waste the next time around.

Adam - So given all that, what do you recommend we can do going forward?

Roland - I think we need to be more honest about what we would need to do and what kind of systems we need to establish if we really wanted recycling to work. And then the other thing I think which is at least as important is that we do need to remember that in a hierarchy of pollution prevention approaches, recycling is only the third best. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Recycling is third best. Really, if you have a reusable cup rather than a single-use cup, then you get many many many uses out of that particular piece of plastic, rather than having to recycle, trying to build a system that is able to recycle the single-use cup.

People think that it's mostly an engineering and a technical issue and I've come to the conclusion that it's actually mostly a social issue. By treating recycling mostly as a technical problem we’ll never quite come to the point of making it work. I think we need to start recognizing that the social dynamics of recycling are at least but probably even more important than technology and the science behind it.


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