Episode 926: So, Should We Recycle? : Planet Money Cities might be picking up your recyclables, but there is a very good chance they aren't being recycled. And that might be a good thing...if you really care about the planet. Part two of a two-part series. ⎸Subscribe to our newsletter here.
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Episode 926: So, Should We Recycle?

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Episode 926: So, Should We Recycle?

Episode 926: So, Should We Recycle?

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SARAH GONZALEZ, HOST:

This is part two of our series on recycling. Part one is the origin story of why we started recycling. You should go listen. It involves the mafia.

KENNY MALONE, HOST:

All right, let's just get this out of the way at the top here. The three R's - reduce, reuse, and then recycle. Recycling is the last option, although it sometimes feels like it is the main option. And it is broken in the United States. And to see just how bad it has gotten, you just need to go to any waste and recycling center.

GONZALEZ: Except those waste and recycling centers don't really like to talk about how broken recycling is. But we found one place that would - Nogales, Ariz.

MALONE: It's Thursday, recycling day, and a city truck has gone to everyone's house, picked up their recycling and brought them to a place called Tucson Recycling & Waste Services.

GONZALEZ: Beer bottles, water bottles - so water bottles, milk jugs, cardboard boxes.

All this stuff tumbling out of the truck is carefully hand-sorted and hand-rinsed - soup cans and newspapers and peanut butter jars - from the upstanding citizens of Nogales, Ariz., who have made the effort to help save our planet and our oceans.

MALONE: And the guy overseeing all of this, Delbert Gallego, says that sorting and rinsing is, in fact, critical. Recycling is a delicate process. You need to do all that stuff.

DELBERT GALLEGO: You have to triple-rinse the plastic. And then, if it had the lids on it, that's considered contamination.

GONZALEZ: No lids?

GALLEGO: No lids.

GONZALEZ: Whoa. Oh, I've been doing that one wrong. So the city of Nogales went around to everyone's house this morning and picked up their recyclables.

GALLEGO: Right.

GONZALEZ: And they brought them here. And where is all this going to go?

GALLEGO: It's dumped over here for right now.

GONZALEZ: And what's over here for?

GALLEGO: Trash.

GONZALEZ: The recycling is going into the trash. I am watching pristine beer bottles and juice cartons and cardboard boxes get smushed into a pile of wet, gooey, dripping food waste and soggy diapers.

KURT WAHL: Our wish would be to be able to recycle it, but we know we can't. We'll end up landfilling that waste.

MALONE: This is Kurt Wahl. He's Delbert's boss. And he says something has gone terribly wrong in the world of recycling.

GONZALEZ: And it's not just Nogales. Cities all over the United States are shoving their recyclables into the trash pile.

WAHL: Unfortunately, recycling is not - I'm not saying it's dead, but it's certainly - I wouldn't say life support, but it's critical (laughter). And I don't want to be the person to burst their bubble.

GONZALEZ: You will not be the one to burst people's bubble. I will burst their bubble.

(LAUGHTER)

GONZALEZ: Me and a bunch of cold-hearted economists.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEIGH MCALLISTER GRACIE'S "NUMBERS GAME")

GONZALEZ: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Sarah Gonzalez.

MALONE: And I'm Kenny Malone. Today on the show, recycling is on life support. Cities might be picking up your recyclables, but there is a very good chance they are not being recycled.

GONZALEZ: And that might be a good thing if you really care about the planet.

MALONE: (Imitating explosion).

(SOUNDBITE OF LEIGH MCALLISTER GRACIE'S "NUMBERS GAME")

GONZALEZ: To understand what went wrong in the world of recycling, we called economist Bevin Ashenmiller at Occidental College.

BEVIN ASHENMILLER: So generally I teach environmental economics. I'm an environmental economist. And environmental economics is a pretty depressing class, so I - sometimes I teach a class called Marriage, Money and Motherhood.

GONZALEZ: I don't even want to know the findings of that.

ASHENMILLER: I have a really good friend who teaches it. And he's always like, I just love wage gaps. They just make me so excited. And I'm like...

GONZALEZ: You're like, yeah, it's not so cool on this end.

ASHENMILLER: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

GONZALEZ: OK, Bevin also knows a lot about the economics of recycling. And she says the first thing you need to know is that in economics, we have goods, and we have bads.

ASHENMILLER: A good is something that you pay money to get. That's why we call it a good. We're very simple people.

GONZALEZ: (Laughter).

ASHENMILLER: And a bad (laughter) is something that you pay money for somebody to take it away.

MALONE: Every time you make a good, like a jar of peanut butter, you also make a bad - an empty jar of peanut butter, something someone will need to dispose of.

GONZALEZ: But back in the 1990s, a few things happened that made all of our bads really attractive to China. China was making all this stuff and shipping it to the U.S. in these huge cargo ships.

ASHENMILLER: They were bringing a lot of tankers into the U.S. that were dropping off materials. And it doesn't make sense to bring a tanker back empty.

MALONE: So some smart person was like, well, then, why don't we just fill those cargo ships up with something useful then?

GONZALEZ: Like empty water bottles. China was like, we can turn those things into, like, polyester socks and sweaters, which are basically just woven out of really, really, really thin plastic bottles.

MALONE: And thus, a market for our bads was born. And eventually, about half of the entire world's junk plastic was being sent to China, much of that coming from the U.S. And when this was working, it is what we imagine recycling to be - my peanut butter jar turning into freaking socks. I mean, that is a modern miracle. But then, just last year, something changed dramatically.

GONZALEZ: China said this isn't worth it for us anymore. Turning your peanut butter jar into socks is creating too much pollution. And frankly, it's just too much work for us now because you guys aren't as good at triple-rinsing your plastic as you think you are, and you're not even sorting it properly. There are milk jugs in with the peanut butter jars, lids still on, peanut butter still in the jar.

MALONE: A total mess. And it used to be worth it for China to just go ahead and clean this stuff up and sort it out on their end because, you know, labor was cheap, and so cleaning and then recycling our old plastic and aluminum was cheaper than creating new plastic and aluminum by drilling for oil and mining for bauxite in the ground, which is how we get plastic and aluminum.

GONZALEZ: But then, China's economy evolved. Labor got more expensive. And China said "we don't want to be the world's garbage dump" - an actual quote.

MALONE: And so China instituted a new plan called the National Sword - their name for it. And in this plan, China said we are only going to take recyclables if they are absolutely spotless and perfectly separated. Plus, we are going to stop taking 24 different kinds of junk, including some kinds of plastics, mixed paper and certain metals.

GONZALEZ: This sent shocks throughout the entire recycling world. Seemingly overnight, the biggest recycling market shrivelled up.

MALONE: And you can see the impact that this had in Nogales, Ariz.

WAHL: You can see a lot of your really wet, nasty trash in there.

MALONE: Remember Kurt, that guy who didn't want to burst our recycling bubble. Here is the position he's in now. He collects all these recyclables, but he still needs to do something with them. And China used to buy recyclables. Kurt actually got paid for this stuff. But when China went away, there was no one to pay for it anymore. Now it is on Kurt to pay if he wants this stuff to get recycled.

WAHL: Whenever you go from being paid for a product to having to pay, there's absolutely a sting and an awakening at that time.

GONZALEZ: So now, Kurt could either pay $200 to get one ton of plastic recycled, or he can pay $30 to get that same ton of plastic buried in a landfill.

WAHL: Obviously, I'm not going to bring it there for $200 a ton.

MALONE: It just simply didn't make financial sense to recycle anymore. And so he has started landfilling. And cities all over the U.S. are in the same position. Some are just canceling parts of their recycling programs altogether, like Douglas County, Ore., Franklin, N.H., Deltona, Fla.

GONZALEZ: Broadway, Va. There are entire cities that are saying we're not even going to bother to pick up your blue bin anymore. There are no more blue bins in entire towns.

MALONE: But in Nogales, Ariz., they're a little more optimistic. They're at least making sure people are going through the motions of recycling.

WAHL: We don't want to just discontinue. We don't want to just do away with it because I think, A, it'll be hard to retrain people to do what we think is the right thing. And we have the hopes that, at some point, it'll start up again.

GONZALEZ: It took Americans so long to pick up the habit of separating our paper and our plastic that if we stopped doing it, Kurt worries residents won't pick the habit back up once there is a market for plastic again. And sometimes when Kurt is all alone at night, and he sees a particularly clean batch of cardboard boxes, his heart goes out to them.

MALONE: It doesn't make financial sense, but, oh, these would make such great new boxes.

GONZALEZ: He opens up his wallet and pays for that stack of boxes to get recycled.

WAHL: Because again, I couldn't bear to see it just going into the landfill. To just throw it in the trash would not feel good at all.

MALONE: But then, eventually, Kurt says, he couldn't even pay anyone to take his cardboard.

WAHL: They wouldn't even take it. They wouldn't even take it because, again, they've got so much product, they had nowhere to go with it.

GONZALEZ: There have been piles of paper and cardboard stacking up all over the country, like actual warehouses full of water bottles and piles of paper just waiting for some buyer to come back on the scene. So we've got all these recyclables piling up.

MALONE: What we're going to do about it after the break.

OK. So we've got piles of recycling piling up or getting landfilled because China doesn't want our dirty, poorly washed and sloppily sorted recycling anymore. So we wanted to talk to some experts about what our options are at this point.

GONZALEZ: It seems the main issue is that, like, if we had perfectly clean recyclables, then China would still buy it.

ASHENMILLER: Right.

GONZALEZ: And so we could just clean it ourselves.

ASHENMILLER: Yeah, but I'm not sure that would be - I mean, like, there's a water question here, right?

GONZALEZ: Again, Bevin Ashenmiller who teaches all the depressing classes.

ASHENMILLER: This is the argument that people are constantly having. Like, do I spend all the water to clean my peanut butter container out?

GONZALEZ: It takes so long to clean out a peanut butter container.

ASHENMILLER: (Laughter) Right? And is that economically efficient for me to waste all that water cleaning out the stupid peanut butter thing so it can be recycled?

GONZALEZ: Bevin says in places like California where water is precious, no, you should not waste water on this. And hot water heated by burning fossil fuels - forget it. You will quickly undo the environmental benefits of recycling.

MALONE: So, OK, maybe we should not clean extra carefully and then ship our recycling to China. But all these recyclable things are piling up all over the U.S. So the U.S. is now looking for another country that maybe doesn't care as much if our stuff is dirty, you know, the way it used to be with China.

THOMAS KINNAMAN: So you expect the baton to be passed, and it has been passed.

MALONE: This is Thomas Kinnaman an environmental economist at Bucknell University.

KINNAMAN: Indonesia, India, Malaysia - these countries will accept some of this stuff, and they have been. And they'll go through the same process.

GONZALEZ: Of accepting it until they say, OK, never mind, we don't want it anymore.

KINNAMAN: Yeah. At some point, it looks like plastic, and at some other point, it starts looking like garbage. Yeah.

GONZALEZ: Is that, like, as the saying goes (laughter)?

KINNAMAN: I actually just made that up, so...

GONZALEZ: OK. Well, we'll trademark it to you.

MALONE: Thomas is kind of the economist when it comes to looking at all the financial and environmental costs and benefits of recycling. If you just landfill a peanut butter jar, obviously that has costs, and Thomas takes that into account. But he says there are also costs to recycling. Like, think about what it entails to recycle that peanut butter jar.

GONZALEZ: A giant truck has to come to your home to pick up your peanut butter jar and then drive it somewhere to get sorted and then drive it to a recycling center and then probably put it on a train, which takes it to a boat, which takes your jar halfway around the world.

MALONE: There are costs here. There are financial costs - paying the truck driver, the boat driver, the sorter - and there are, of course, environmental costs, like the pollution from trucks and trucks and trains and boats.

KINNAMAN: And that's where you start wondering, OK, wait a minute.

MALONE: Is recycling worth it? And when you crunch the numbers, Thomas says, more recycling isn't always better for the planet. Sometimes it is worse, including in ways that you may not have thought of.

KINNAMAN: Here's sort of the untold story is that China's ban may actually reduce the amount of plastic that ends up in the oceans. China was not very careful about what got into their ocean for a long period of time. And if some of the plastic piles were just too corrupted, they could do whatever they wanted with it.

GONZALEZ: They dumped them in the ocean.

KINNAMAN: So it's...

GONZALEZ: OK. We know that there is a big pile of plastic floating in the ocean, and Thomas is like, how do you think it got there? One bottle at a time, really?

KINNAMAN: You could imagine, oh, that big pile of plastic in the ocean came from the odd bottle being blown off the dock in San Francisco Bay and it went out there and joined all of its friends, and they're all hanging out out there off of the coast of Hawaii. That's probably a very tiny part of it. Countries historically dumped waste out in the ocean.

GONZALEZ: You guys, Thomas is saying that our valiant recycling efforts have been hurting the ocean.

MALONE: And those cute sea turtles.

KINNAMAN: If you're given two options if you're in the middle part of the country - there's a landfill about 50 miles away or put it on a boat to China - and ask yourself which plastic bottle is most likely to end up in the ocean, I'll let you answer that yourself.

GONZALEZ: Oh.

MALONE: And this gets us to the first of what is going to be several controversial Thomas Kinnaman ideas. And we're just going to save you the Googling. You can email us your complaints to planetmoney@npr.org.

GONZALEZ: But hear Thomas out OK. He is an environmental economist. He is interested in helping the planet. So I know it's hard to hear, but Thomas is saying that, at the moment, it is better for the planet if your plastic ends up in a landfill instead of on a boat shipped off to be recycled.

MALONE: And it's not just about falling in the ocean. This is about the overall environmental cost of that journey. And actually, his analysis finds that this is also true for glass. It's better if that ends up in the landfill. Paper, though, he finds it can go either way. Sometimes recycling is better; sometimes it's not.

GONZALEZ: But good news, everyone, you can still recycle some things. Certain materials, definitely, Thomas says, it is terrible if it ends up in a landfill, like metals, tin and aluminum. Think soup can and Coke can. Thomas says mining for new aluminum in the ground is worse for the environment than the environmental footprint that goes into recycling aluminum, even if we do ship them around the world.

KINNAMAN: Any time an aluminum can ends up in the landfill is a problem. So we should be targeting 100% for those materials.

MALONE: As in, we should basically do everything we can to make sure aluminum and other metals do not ever end up in our landfills.

GONZALEZ: All this time, we've been demonizing water bottles, and LaCroix cans have been skating by.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAN OPENING)

MALONE: I'm going to watch you personally recycle that, Sarah Gonzalez.

GONZALEZ: (Laughter) I'm going to recycle it. Here's the twist. Tin and aluminum are still being recycled by the U.S. There is still a market for metal.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLURPING)

GONZALEZ: Do you want me to crack another bottle?

MALONE: Sarah.

GONZALEZ: (Laughter) I brought backups in case I didn't crack it properly.

MALONE: Moral of the story, Thomas says, Sarah is going to need to recycle all these cans, and she should bury her plastics.

KINNAMAN: Yeah. Put it all in the landfill or burn it, which is what's happening as well in parts of the world.

GONZALEZ: Hold on (laughter). It is better environmentally to burn plastic? That is not going to go down well with some of our listeners, I feel like.

KINNAMAN: Absolutely won't - not go down well in the United States. You have to travel to our other developed countries in the world.

GONZALEZ: So you are making the case for burning plastic.

KINNAMAN: It's going to be expensive.

MALONE: Actually, the most expensive way to dispose of waste, but Thomas says it is surprisingly the best for the environment at the moment - better than shipping to recycling places all over the world and better than landfilling.

KINNAMAN: In Germany and in the Netherlands and in Sweden, they've embraced a new form of incineration, which I refer to as incineration 2.0.

MALONE: Incineration 2.0 and Thomas says these newer, fancier incinerators actually give off fewer dangerous emissions than a backyard charcoal barbecue.

GONZALEZ: He calls incineration the Cadillac plan because he says it basically solves all of the problems. Incinerators generate electricity and hot water and the ashes are used for things like sidewalk tiles. It is very expensive, but he says incineration 2.0 is the future.

ERIC GOLDSTEIN: That's a ridiculous - that's a ridiculous...

GONZALEZ: (Laughter) Your face.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah.

GONZALEZ: No? You're not buying it?

GOLDSTEIN: Ultimately...

GONZALEZ: This is Eric Goldstein, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. And Eric is so not down with incineration 2.0.

GOLDSTEIN: Well, some people have said that, I guess. They don't say it to me directly. They know that would be a mistake.

GONZALEZ: (Laughter).

GOLDSTEIN: Well...

MALONE: We wanted to talk to Eric and the NRDC because they represent another ideology on recycling. It's more absolutist.

GOLDSTEIN: Well, we like recycling.

MALONE: They say we owe it to the planet to find a way to make all kinds of recycling work.

GOLDSTEIN: Plastics are made from fossil fuels. If we continue to utilize every bit of coal and oil, petroleum that's buried under the ground, we're going to have a planet that is uninhabitable.

GONZALEZ: Eric says the minute you burn or landfill a plastic jar instead of recycling it, you just took a resource from the Earth - the oil to make the jar - and you didn't even try to use it as much as possible. You never gave that resource a second life - not good.

MALONE: And he says Thomas' calculations are based on how things are today where we have to ship things around the world to recycle them. If the U.S. were to invest in more recycling plants domestically, the calculations would change. It could make sense to recycle.

GOLDSTEIN: And we also need to recognize that maybe it shouldn't all be left up to municipalities to solve this problem and that manufacturers ought to bear more of the burden for figuring out how to deal with this evergrowing amount of waste that we're generating in the United States.

GONZALEZ: Make less and use less - reduce. That is the best thing we can do. And our environmental economist Thomas Kinnaman totally agrees.

MALONE: It's just that right now a lot of things come in plastic - your shampoo, your peanut butter.

GONZALEZ: So what are we supposed to do?

KINNAMAN: It's OK to put it in the garbage pile, put it in the landfill and feel OK about it.

MALONE: And, look; we get it. Putting a plastic container into your trash can, it is going to feel bad.

GONZALEZ: You're going to want to pull it out and put it in the recycling bin. Thomas knows this urge very well.

KINNAMAN: I recycle, actually, all my plastic even though my own data suggests that it's not always good to.

GONZALEZ: You still recycle.

KINNAMAN: Yeah. I'll even clean it out a little bit before I put it into the container.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALESSANDRO RIZZO'S "FUNKY AND WESTERN")

GONZALEZ: If you have a story idea, send us an email - planetmoney@npr.org.

MALONE: We also have a newsletter - just the right amount of economics for your inbox. You can subscribe by going to npr.org/planetmoneynewsletter. That is npr.org/planetmoneynewsletter. Today's show was produced by Alexi Horowitz Ghazi and Liza Yager. Bryant Urstadt edits our show.

GONZALEZ: And Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer. By the way, Kenny and I, we are still recycling. If you really want to be good to the environment, you're just going to have to do a little research, find out how your city is responding. I'm Sarah Gonzalez.

MALONE: I'm Kenny Malone.

GONZALEZ: And we have to give a special thanks to Lowell Harrelson of Mobile, Ala. He is basically the reason why the United States started residential recycling. And his story was part one of our series.

LOWELL HARRELSON: This is NPR, and we thank you for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALESSANDRO RIZZO'S "FUNKY AND WESTERN")

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