ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Is Recycling a SCAM?

Updated on February 22, 2015
Will recycling help him?
Will recycling help him? | Source

Why do we recycle?

There’s so very little that we can believe in today. The news is filled with stories of our fallen heroes. We see celebrities doing horrible things all of the time. Politicians say one thing, but do another…. when they do anything at all. Food that is supposed to be good for us eventually turns out to be a killer. Are vitamins and herbal supplements good for us? A government study says it may not matter, since most of these formulas lack all of the ingredients on their labels. For example, products from Walmart had the ingredients they claimed just 4% of the time. Gluten-free formulas used… you guessed it… gluten. Isn’t anything positive and real anymore! What about recycling? That’s got to be real… right?

If you live in an advanced industrial nation, you are surrounded by manufactured goods. These goods are made of materials that are highly complex to build and often complex to recycle. Plastics, glass, metals… everything around you requires different processes to be successfully recycled. Ideally, our garbage is a resource to some manufacturing process that can use recyclables over and over again, reducing the need for new raw materials or saving energy.

Multi-Stream recycling


Recycling is all about location, location, location.

Recycling is always a local issue, because every location has different needs and costs. For example, if you live in an area that has cheap and plentiful hydro-electric power, recycling metals may be a particularly good idea, since the use of an electric smelter is a common part of the recycling process. On the other hand, recycling paper might not be the best recycling do pursue if you live in a more arid area where water… a vital element of paper recycling… is at a premium.

There is a general, but by no means universal, belief that recycling works best if it is driven by the markets. Which is to say you recyclers want the valuable materials in your trash, and can make a profit recycling. After all, why would anyone throw away money? On the other hand, if you are recycling because it is a good thing to do, you may lose your interest at some point, or you may say, “That’s good enough” and stop.

One of the “scam” arguments within the recycling world is just how subsidies can distort a recycling program. If a subsidy is required to make a recycling program viable, will private partnerships hold back in investing in a program or in buying the very best technology if they think the subsidy will only last until the next election?

As long as you recycle only because it is subsidized, there are likely to be limits to how much you can recycle. If the price is artificial, you may not be able to improve your profits through improvements in efficiency. Reducing the carbon cost for recycling won’t be much of a priority, if subsidies are reduced as you improve your cost of operation.

If recycling can be proved to be a long term profitable business, it will attract private money to build new recycling centers, with the most efficient equipment. Consider the recycling of steel. The biggest cost of recycling is for the electricity that is needed to melt down the old steel. If this is a market driven recycler, who can’t ask the government for subsidies to make the business profitable, they will buy the most efficient, most modern electric smelters so that their costs are lowest. But being a money making business can be tricky for a recycler.

For the last decade the recycling industry was built on the idea that carbon based fuel is expensive. Therefore, recycling is a relatively inexpensive alternative for obtaining new aluminum, steel, paper and plastic. But the price of oil and gas has dropped dramatically, and new forms of petroleum are being found as fracking technology is becoming widespread, and tar sands are being developed commercially.

Cheap fuel has raised a lot of question about new damage to the environment. If fuel becomes cheap, will we invest in recycling that has hidden environmental costs? Will a major change in fuel costs reduce the advantages of recycling, making it cheaper to mine new metals, rather than to continue to operate recycling programs? Economics based recycling doesn't always work hand in hand with environmentalism.

Should recycling expand or contract in your community?

Are you recycling as much as you should?

See results

Recycling of water bottles

Elements of a successful recycling program

The consumer recycling movement, the recycling that you and your family actually see, is mostly an outgrowth of regulations passed by municipalities and counties. These programs are part of the waste management system, and have become a part of our weekly rituals. Families across American perform their weekly ritual of sorting recyclables from waste, filling up different recycling bins, and putting them out on the curb. There are still paper drives and civic groups still organize to clean up stretches of woods and public land that has become a dumping ground. But it is trash collection that has become the most important recycling activity.

Remember, not every city has a recycling program. The cost equation for recycling changes from location to location. Rather than recycling and selling off reusable material, it can be more cost effective for some cities to just dump trash into a land fill. One study from Denmark, that attempted to take every form of social and economic cost into account, found that the most cost effective way to dispose of trash is incineration, usually considered the least ecologically sound method to dispose of Trash. But now, trash burning power plants have become so efficient that incineration can now live side-by-side with recycling.

Whatever the ultimate disposal method, at the start of the recycling program a decision has to be made about how much time residents will put into the sorting of trash, and how much time and fuel will be spent collecting recyclables. The easiest program for a municipality to start is “single stream” recycling. Here, residents put all of their recyclables into a single bin, which gets picked up by a single recycling vehicle.

Other cities use multi-stream recycling, providing residents with different bins for each type of recyclable… aluminum, steel, glass, plastic, paper, etc. By reducing the cost of separating materials, multi=stream is more efficient and has produces recyclables with higher value. Single stream programs require more facilities and more workers to separate re-sellable or re-useable materials. In addition to factors such as the cost of electricity, gasoline and labor, the value of recyclable materials and the interest that residents have in sorting their own recyclables will determine how many recycling streams are used.

An often forgotten cost for recycling is the cost of cleaning. While you may just place paper into a bin, cans and bottles are usually cleaned. If you look at the contents of these bins you will find that some people barely clean them, while others put a lot of effort into producing sparkling clean recyclables. A big recycling center can clean materials much more efficiently than when you clean by hand. A recent study stated you would have to use over 1,000 Styrofoam cups to equal the energy used to create a ceramic coffee mug and clean it. True, the Styrofoam cup creates landfill waste, but cleaning your mug a thousand times wastes a huge amount of water, and more energy (especially if you use hot water). There is very little reliable information on how much energy we use to clean recycleables, but we do know that collecting recycleables can create a big carbon footprint. The higher the population density, the more efficient the collection process.

A new era for U.S. recycling?

The last two decades of recycling in America has been tightly tied to China's growth:

  • More and more US and Euro recyclables are shipped to China for recycling.
  • The recycling and re-manufacturing of trash from the US has moved pollution offshore
  • In order to protect their own environment, starting in 2013 China began to reject some of the recyclable trash that they used to buy.
  • When US manufacturing moves onshore, pollution back onshore as well.
  • Is America ready for the next stage of recycling, when China is less dependent on our trash?

Plastic Bottles

When is recycling a scam?

Steel and aluminum are good recyclables. Paper is also a good recyclable, but a great deal of US recycled paper goes to… China. More than a quarter of our recycled paper (15 million tons annually), is sent to China. In China, new boxes and shipping materials are created from this paper.

Normally, it makes no sense to ship paper around the world, but China has a unique problem. First, they don’t have the raw materials to make boxes for all of the computers, smart-phones and other manufactured goods they make. Second, after China uses big container ships to send goods to the US, these same ships and their containers were returning to China empty. Our garbage, was the most valuable product we had that China wanted. Now, China is raising their standards for our garbage, and rejecting lower quality paper and plastics (China buys half of America’s recycled plastic water bottles). China’s new “Green Fence” policy us rejecting more low quality and contaminated recyclables, in order to improve their environment. However, in the US their increased level of rejection caused an 11% drop in the price for scrap plastic in 2013.

Depending on your situation, paper recycling may not be worthwhile. Recycling glass is right on the edge of being worth the trouble. If you live in a population dense area, with little room for landfill, glass recycling could be a good idea. But if the population is spread out, electricity is expensive and there is a high cost of sorting, it might be reasonable to put glass into a landfill. Unlike many other forms of trash, glass is completely stable and will only degrade into sand over a very long time.

Plastics, are both the most dangerous form of trash and the most difficult to recycle. There are many different types of plastic, some of which look alike. The U.S. identifies 7 different types of plastic, and the number 1-7 inside of a recycling symbol is printed on the bottom of container. Unlike steel, which can be separated via a magnet, the technology to separate out plastics is not very developed, and often must be done by hand. Even in multi-stream recycling where different bins are set up for different types of plastic, the average citizen will make mistakes and further sorting is required further along in the recycling workflow.

WW II recycling poster


Recycling: Cure-All or Scam?

Recycling is definitely not a cure all. It can help preserve the environment, and it can make economic sense, but not all forms of recycling will work in every community. The local importance of power costs, the availability of water, the availability and cost of landfill space all have an impact on a recycling program and if it is worth doing. If the cost of fuel or China’s interest in buying our trash changes, it could turn a viable recycling program into something that’s just not worth doing. Every big recycling program will have some portion of the trash that goes into landfill, gets incinerated, or is just sent to some other city for them to dump.

A good, well thought out and well managed recycling program makes sense, but always needs to monitor the results and make sure that your program is delivering the results you expected. When conditions change, you need to be ready to change your recycling program. A well-managed, realistic recycling program is never a scam… at least that’s my Niccolls worth for today!


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • JYOTI KOTHARI profile image

      Jyoti Kothari 

      3 years ago from Jaipur

      This article has opened a new horizon for me. Thanks for a nice article. Congrats for being chosen as editor's choice hub.

      rated up and interesting.

    • rharper profile image


      3 years ago from West Texas

      Quick comment, short on time. Here's an article about the new French law and the movement to make products repairable and less disposable.

    • tlcs profile image

      Trudy Cooper 

      3 years ago from Hampshire, UK

      Very interesting hub. Here in Hampshire we recycle and I must say very well. You have researched this and made it a very interesting read. Thanks

    • allpurposeguru profile image

      David Guion 

      3 years ago from North Carolina

      As difficult as it is to site new landfills, I can't imagine any circumstance under which sending recyclable material there would be preferable. On the other hand, I'm glad to see that incinerators are becoming environmentally viable.

      I agree with previous commentators that you have presented careful research on a very important topic. I will be studying this hub carefully and following up on it. Thank you for your work.

    • Venkatachari M profile image

      Venkatachari M 

      3 years ago from Hyderabad, India

      You have selected a very good topic and dealt with it so intelligently and

      interestingly. Recycling is a great need of the hour. But, as you said, there is scam all over the world in any kind of field and recycling is not an exception. So, real concern for environment should be there for anybody to solve this problem. Governments, business men and citizens - everyone should contribute in tackling this issue with their honest efforts.

      Thanks for choosing such a great topic. Voted up and awesome.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      This is a very thoroughly researched and well written hub. You looked at the subject of recycling from all angles. Very informative and a lot of food for thought. Voted up.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)