Recycling: you’re doing it wrong


Image credit: Poster shows pile of objects (1970-80), Library of Congress

When it comes to being eco-friendly, it’s rarely as straightforward as you think

So, we’ve got a problem.  And it reeks.

It’s our trash, you see.  And by some estimates, we’re producing roughly 350 million metric tons of it a year, but for those of you not living in a densely populated city like New York, where one snowstorm can delay garbage collection, leaving heaps of ballooning trash bags to rot for days at a time, perhaps it’s easy to forget just how much waste this country generates.  As a Manhattan resident, I’m afraid I do not have this luxury.  Storm or no storm, I often have little choice, but to share the sidewalk with my trash — and everybody else’s — awaiting curbside pickup.  To put it another way, navigating the subway and its sea of pushy commuters sometimes feels like an easy, breezy walk in the park compared to sidestepping city rats tumbling out of bins and scuttling into my path as I approach my apartment each night.  If only to make my journey home a little less terrifying, I do my best to prevent more trash from piling up on the street, reusing what I can and recycling what I can’t.  And when I’m not home, I like to think I’m still making eco-friendly decisions — whether it’s selecting paper over plastic at the grocery store or bringing my own tumbler to Starbucks.  But come to find out, some of these practices aren’t as green as I once suspected.


What’s greener?  Drying your hands by electric dryer or paper? 

When it comes to making what I once thought were environmentally sound choices, my soul-searching begins shortly after I arrive at the office each day.  More specifically, as I’m leaving the restroom.  Each time, I’m daunted by the same question: Do I use the electric hand dryer or opt for the quicker and quieter option — a couple of paper towels?

For the past two years, with few exceptions, I’ve dutifully stood before that louder first option, assured that the electric dryer was hands down the lesser of two evils.  But after consulting Jeffrey Morris, an economist and life-cycle assessment expert, I’m not so sure anymore.

When we speak over the phone, I waste little time before presenting him with my daily quandary.  Morris pauses for a moment and draws a deep breath before rattling off a series of questions.

What kind of electricity does the hand dryer employ?  I don’t know.  Are the towels eventually composted?  I have no earthly idea.  In the case that the dryer runs on coal-based electricity, he goes on, paper may be the better option…especially if it ultimately gets composted.

I admit that I have never considered any of these questions — much less known their answers.  So, now I find myself quite uncertain on how best to proceed (in the meantime, I’ve settled for wiping my hands on my pants).


Paper or foam cups? 

By 2 pm, if the hand dryer versus towel debate hasn’t entirely drained my mental battery, I find myself pained by yet another dilemma.  How shall I take my tea?  In a paper or foam cup?  Or is it high time that I admit I’m in this for the long haul and invest in a mug that I can clean and presumably reuse multiple times?

Common sense would dictate that the reusable mug is the greenest of the three options, followed by the disposable paper cup, leaving its evil polystyrene twin in last place.  After all, the mug can be washed and used again, and the paper cup can be thrown in with the recyclables — or so the conventional wisdom goes.  But foam has no life after its first and only use.  Right?

In the spirit of full disclosure, I harbor a teensy-weensy bias against foam — perhaps as a result of all its bad press lately.  Indeed, there’s been something of a popular movement against foam in recent years, to have it knocked out of circulation — perhaps reaching an all-time high when Michael Bloomberg instituted a ban on it within the New York food industry as one of his final acts as mayor.  Companies like Jamba Juice, too, have gone to considerable lengths to distance themselves from this dreaded white material with an image problem.  But is there any merit in all this hostility?  More importantly, at least for me and my tea habit, is the foam cup the worst of the three options?

Upon review, the evidence seems to defy my better judgment…again.  For starters, I learn that compared to foam cups, the paper alternative requires far more energy and resources to be produced.  As outlined by Christopher Bonanos in the Daily Intelligencer, wood has to be harvested first and then converted into paper long before it can be transformed into a stack of fresh cups — a process which is particularly water and energy intensive, as well as dirty and toxic.  Indeed, compared to the manufacture of foam, the paper option reportedly requires two and a half times the energy.  Perhaps even more damning for paper, manufacturers need just one twelfth as much water to produce foam cups, writes Bonanos.

But surely, the fact that paper cups can be recycled counts for something.  Right?

Wrong.  Again.

“[M]any everyday disposable goods such as coffee cups and paper food packaging are actually not recyclable,” says sustainability strategist Leyla Acaroglu, “as they are paper lined with plastic film.”  Of course, that plastic film is no mere afterthought.  It’s what keeps your hot beverage from eating through the paper and landing in your lap.  However necessary, it renders the paper useless for recyclers.  Still, many people assume these cups can be salvaged, so they throw them in with recyclable paper, says Acaroglu.  And they do so with remarkable zeal — at least here in New York, where the average person tosses 500 of them in the bin every year.  What’s worse, Acaroglu tells me, is that these dirty paper cups then end up contaminating the actual recyclables they’ve been mixed in with.  Click here to watch my Google Hangout with Acaroglu.

So, basically, paper is bad, as it requires more energy and water to process — and all for naught because the darn things can’t be recycled anyway.  But even if foam outperforms paper by these metrics, how could either disposable option be better for the environment than a reusable mug?


Foam cup or reusable mug? 


Photo by the author

In the mid 90s, chemist Martin B. Hocking of the University of Victoria tackled this question with his now highly cited life-cycle energy analysis — which, for those of you keeping score, illustrates the failings of my intuition for a fourth time.  Hocking’s findings demonstrate that more energy is needed to manufacture reusable cups — like a ceramic mug — than disposable ones.  And because a mug needs to be washed periodically, it requires more energy over its lifetime of use — how much exactly depends on the efficiency of the dishwasher.  In other words, reusable cups are more costly in terms of energy first at the stage of production and thereon after, so they’re only the best option when they are used many times.  Hocking calculated that only after some 1000 uses was the ceramic mug as energy efficient as the foam cup.

Again, settling my initial query has been in no way straightforward — nor should it be.  These deceptively simple questions require serious thought and often with a cradle-to-landfill scope.

“[T]he critical thing is to have information that is relevant to inform your intuition and decision-making,” Acaroglu tells me.  It’s also important “to start by changing what you think you know,” she adds.

Perhaps some of my confusion surrounding recycling is in part rooted in the fact that recycling practices vary so much from state to state — even city to city — which is never clearer to me as when I visit my family in Montgomery, Alabama.  Local residents and businesses are not required and hardly encouraged to recycle their trash.  If they choose to, however, they must sort and deliver their garbage themselves to one of the city’s two drop-off points.  When I call the helpline, a very friendly operator informs me that a better system may be in place as early as this summer, but I wonder, is that not a lot of time to waste…waste?

Some cities provide adequate infrastructure for recycling, says Nickolas J. Themelis, the Director of the Earth Engineering Center at Columbia University.  But even in places like New York where the infrastructure exists, there is significant variation in how people utilize it, Themelis tells me.  It may be the same across all boroughs, he says, but whereas some neighborhoods recycle 30% or more, others recycle half that amount.  Because there are no federal directives for waste management, he says, communities are on their own.

These differences in practice might in part be explained in terms of local attitudes, Jeffrey Morris explains, as well as market factors like landfill disposal fees.  In most of the country, these fees are quite low — hardly an incentive to recycle.  And increasingly, with sliding oil prices, recycling is becoming far less profitable; the availability of cheaper oil makes it easier to buy new plastics as opposed to recycling the old.  But if these practices are somewhat simpler in the short term, they fail to address the ever-growing waste problem in the long term.  And for people like Acaroglu and Morris, it’s a missed opportunity to tap into trash’s potential as an energy and material resource.

“[W]e should always try and create closed-loop systems where waste becomes the raw materials for a new process — after all, that’s what nature does so well,” says Acaroglu.

In the closed-loop systems Acaroglu envisions, paper is recycled into new paper products, glass into new glass, metals into new metals, and the list goes on.  And by not extracting virgin materials from the environment, the energy saved can be substantial, says Morris.  In an energy conservation analysis he compiled in 1994, Morris calculates that reused paper could save anywhere from 14,000 to 39,000 kJ/kg.  Recycled wood, roughly 6400 kJ/kg.  And when container glass is reused, the savings may be anywhere from 900 to 5,500 kJ/kg.

Still, even if you’re France, now implementing a nation-wide ban on food waste, or the city of Seattle with exceptionally high recycling rates, there is still leftover trash, and the discussion on how best to dispose of it often degrades into a surprisingly dirty debate among experts.  Take a look at this 2010 New York Times discussion in which they come together to duke it out.


Burning or burying our trash? 

The real divide lies between those who think leftover waste should be burned and those who think it ought to be buried.  In nearly 40 countries, Themelis tells The Wall Street Journal, communities have opted for the first option.  Denmark, among them, has done so with considerably favorable results.  So, what’s stopping the US, which according to The Wall Street Journal incinerates just 12% of its municipal solid waste for energy?

When I speak with Themelis, a vocal proponent of incineration or waste-to-energy (WTE), he tells me that older waste management systems in the U.S. don’t hold up against these newer technologies.  “In aspects of a) health, b) environment, c) land conservation, d) conservation of fossil fuel resources, and e) greenhouse gas mitigation, waste-to energy plants have been shown by several studies, including the 2014 IPCC Assessment Report, to be vastly superior to landfilling,” he says.

Morris, however, challenges him point for point in The Wall Street Journal, stating in no uncertain terms that burning waste for electricity is “a terrible idea.”  It is, for one, incredibly inefficient, Morris explains, converting less than 25% of waste into electricity.  With so little return, he argues that the environmental costs are simply too high.  Incineration, he goes on, releases carbon into the environment, while landfills lock it into the ground.  However, when the two of us speak over e-mail, he concedes that older landfills don’t necessarily measure up to newer incinerators — at least those WTE plants equipped with state of the art pollution controls.  But even so, because incinerators inherently rely on a steady stream of waste, he worries that they’ll stand in conflict with future recycling and composting efforts.

“As communities recover more resources and generate fewer leftovers, [waste-to-energy] facilities must find alternative waste to fuel the burner,” he and three other researchers conclude in a 2013 report.

So, what do they propose as an alternative?

MRBT or material recovery, biological treatment.  In that same report, Morris and the others describe the process as a way of treating waste before it’s landfilled in order to recover any other recyclables that may have been missed and to reduce the waste’s methane generating capabilities before going into the ground.  This system has been in use for several years in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and after reviewing five different residual management systems, Morris and the other writers conclude it’s the best option.  Still, at the end of the day, they reiterate that “the environmental benefits of recycling and composting are nearly ten times greater than the best disposal option.”

Acaroglu, on the other hand, would argue that recycling isn’t necessarily the answer either.  We should be looking for solutions long before our trash reaches the paper, plastic, glass, and metal bins.  It’s a question of consumption, she tells me.  We simply consume too much.  And as I lug this week’s trash down to the street, I wonder how as a single person I’ve let it get so heavy.

If there’s one takeaway from all this, it’s that none of these questions lend themselves to straightforward answers.  Still, we best be asking them and as Acaroglu suggests, seeking information to challenge what we thought we knew.


My report card:

Electric hand dryer: grade pending – how is it powered?

Paper towels: grade pending – are they composted?

Paper cup: resounding F

Foam cup: C+

Ceramic mug: B+ upon considerable use

Landfill: further consideration necessary; stands to improve

Incineration: further consideration necessary; stands to improve