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Rethinking recycling

Focusing on paper, metal, and plastics produces the greatest reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere and the most profitable operations.

Photo by Hans

william schlesinger
President Emeritus, Biogeochemist

Recycling remains the easiest way for the average citizen to help achieve a closed-loop economy, in which all waste is reused to generate new products. Recycled materials, like aluminum and glass, require less energy to process into new goods and emit lower amounts of greenhouse gases.  Recycled paper saves trees, and recycled plastic reduces the amount of plastic litter that is ubiquitous in the environment.

Unfortunately, the recycling industry has fallen on tough times recently, as the value of materials collected for recycling is at historic lows, especially for glass.  Meanwhile the cost to operate a municipal recycling program has risen, so that in 2020, a recycling program gathering only 20% of household waste cost 8% more than a traditional garbage collection program.

There are large costs associated with the collection and separation of recycled materials that are partially offset by savings at the landfill.  When the value of the collected materials is low, their sale barely covers costs, which are now estimated at about $40 per household per year in the U.S.  This is a municipal service, but it is not as easy to appreciate as fire protection, sewage disposal and garbage collection.

A recent paper by Anshaii and Townsend suggests rethinking municipal recycling.  It questions the value of “single-stream” recycling, which is popular with households, but generates more contaminated materials that must be diverted to landfills. Composite materials and packaging (e.g., plastic with paper) also complicate single-stream recycling efforts.  The new study questions continued recycling of glass, which is of marginal value.  Focusing on paper, metal, and plastics produces the greatest reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere and the most profitable operations.

Government policies to encourage recycling also help, including requirements that manufacturers use a certain percentage of recycled materials in new products and their packaging. This will increase the commodity value of recycled materials.  Prioritizing recycling efforts to focus on higher value materials may increase participation in recycling programs and reduce contamination.  Consumers will know exactly what to recycle. To the extent that such policies make recycling operations cost effective, they will encourage the continuation of recycling programs, rather than a step backward–their elimination altogether.


Anshassi, M. and T.G. Townsend. 2023.  The hidden economic and environmental costs of eliminating kerb-side (sic) recycling.  Nature Sustainability 6: 919-926.

Pressley, P.N., J.W. Lewis, AQ. Damgaard, M.A. Barlaz, and J.F. DeCarolis. 2015.  Analysis of material recovery facilities for use in life-cycle assessment.  Waste Management 35: 307-317.

william schlesinger
President Emeritus, Biogeochemist

William Schlesinger is active in communicating science to policy makers and media. He has testified about environmental issues in Congress and in state houses, and has been featured in media including NOVA, the Weather Channel, Discover, National Geographic, and the New York Times.

He discusses a range of environmental issues in his weekly blog, Translational Ecology.

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