Re: Recycling

by Steven F. Hayward

Regarding Jonah’s query about recycling, the best answer is–it depends. I actually studied trash rather intensively about 15 years ago, and found it a surprisingly interesting subject. The effectiveness of recycling depends on what commodity you are dealing with: aluminum cans were always a slam dunk, because new aluminum products could be made much more cheaply and with much less energy than from virgin raw materials (bauxite). But with just about everything else, recycling makes less sense, though not always no sense.

The biggest problem with recycling as we practice it now is that we recover less material from curbside programs than if we moved more quickly to state-of-the-art “material recovery facilities” (known in the trade as “MuRFs”). With a MuRF, you collect the entire waste stream, sort the recyclables more efficiently, and save running a separate set of trucks to collect the curbside stuff. But of course you now have a vast constituency that wants to continue with the curbside system in part to “protect jobs” and in part to “raise consciouness.” The inefficient curbside system now retards the progress of sensible recycling–another example of unintended consequences–because it skims off the most profitable recyclables (especially aluminum cans) and makes it less attractive for the waste disposal industry to build more MuRFs which would also collect the marginal and unprofitable recyclables.