How Useful Is Recycling, Really?

Among all possible climate actions, recycling ranks pretty low in its impact.

A plastic bag, some plastic bottles, aluminum can tops and a recycling symbol in front of a green background
Getty / The Atlantic

One of the few things Americans largely agree on is recycling. This simple act is popular with Democrats, Republicans, free-market diehards, and environmental advocates alike, data consistently show. And among recycling enthusiasts, one group is particularly keen—people already concerned about climate change.

This makes a certain intuitive sense, as recycling has well-documented benefits for the planet and can reduce carbon emissions. Still, as climate actions go, even the most committed recyclers caution that this one has clear limits.

“There are a lot of climate benefits to bolstering the recycling system,” Beth Porter, the author of Reduce, Reuse, Reimagine: Sorting Out the Recycling System, told me. “But we also have to acknowledge that recycling is not among the highest-priority actions.”

Recycling does have value. It is one of the easier climate-friendly acts individuals can undertake, and it reduces the extraction of virgin materials. “Any time you use renewable resources, or secondary resources, there’s less carbon emitted than if you use primary resources,” Adam Minter, the author of Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade, an insider’s account of the international recycling business, told me.

Despite the carbon involved in collection, transport, and processing, recycled aluminum, for example, is about 95 percent less energy-intensive to forge than its raw alternative. Project Drawdown, a nonprofit group that conducts reviews of climate solutions, includes recycling in its recommendations for reining in emissions. But when the group analyzed more than 80 separate means that could help keep the world from passing the oft-cited threshold of 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius of warming, the recycling industry’s projected contributions fell below the median, trailing geothermal power, efficient aviation, forest protection, and dozens of other actions.

Project Drawdown’s list centers on strategies that are feasible to adopt and have room for growth within the existing market. It gives more weight to solutions such as onshore wind turbines for that reason. The recommendations also account for recycling’s tricky relationship with waste reduction—on its face, waste reduction alone saves much more in emissions. If 1 million metric tons of waste are landfilled, direct emissions equal about 274,000 tons of CO2-equivalent, Miranda Gorman, a senior fellow with the group, explained to me. Not sending items for disposal avoids creating those emissions. Recycling is more complex, because the process itself consumes energy and resources. But it still reduces the use of virgin feedstocks, which Project Drawdown estimates can save up to an additional 2 million tons of CO2-equivalent. Both are ultimately needed, the group says.

“We analyze the impact of the integrated system as a whole, and all of the solutions are interconnected,” Gorman said.

For recycling to truly make an impact, however, it needs to be more effective. In 2018, national rates had dipped to 32 percent of total municipal waste, according to the most recent data available from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—out of almost 300 million tons of waste generated that year, only 69 million tons were recycled. Paper and paperboard are among the more recycled materials, while glass has stagnated at about 25 percent. Plastics recycling rates remain under 10 percent.

Americans might want to recycle, but a constant influx of new and hard-to-manage materials in the waste stream poses ongoing problems for facilities with aging infrastructure. This can be compounded by a lack of education and standardization: Recycling programs differ wildly, and people are often so enthusiastic about recycling, they toss items into a bin without verifying that they can, in fact, be recycled.

That last problem is sometimes called “wish-cycling.” If a municipal program receives a particular item that it cannot accept, it is subsequently hauled elsewhere for disposal, creating emissions and contributing to the waste stream. Such practices, Minter noted, underscore the gap between the public’s good intentions and recycling’s real capacity.

“People just really want a way out of their consumption that doesn’t make them feel bad,” he said.

But recycling does ultimately play a role in emissions reduction, and in recent years the industry, too, has leaned into its clear climate benefits.

“Landfills create methane, a serious climate bad actor, and the less that goes into the landfill, the better,” Keefe Harrison, the CEO of The Recycling Partnership (TRP), told me. “From a system point of view, recycling protects the climate by keeping natural habitats in place, limiting the need for carbon-intensive harvesting of virgin natural resources.”

A national nonprofit, TRP focuses on building public-private partnerships to boost recycling, powered by a group of funders, including Coca-Cola, the American Chemistry Council, and Burt’s Bees. Like others in the space, TRP’s message often centers on “circularity” and the idea of an economy that operates in a renewing cycle rather than on a linear path that culminates in disposal.

Climate change is a key part of that message. Since its beginning in 2014, Harrison said, TRP's work has helped prevent the emission of about 251,000 metric tons of carbon emissions, in addition to diverting more than 230 million tons of recyclables from landfills. And the group thinks that more emissions reductions are possible: In a 2020 report, TRP found that only about half of Americans have access to curbside pickup, and that many who do have access don’t fully participate.

That has led to the inverse of wish-cycling—items are being thrown away that could be recycled. Curbside recycling currently recovers only about 32 percent of what is available in single-family homes, according to TRP. If the remainder were recycled each year, based on calculations through the EPA’s Waste Reduction Model, which determines emissions savings stemming from waste-management practices, TRP has found that "would also reduce U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions by 96 million metric tons of carbon-dioxide equivalent," Harrison said.

Although industry forces see recycling as a key climate tool, others are more skeptical, including Jan Dell, a chemical engineer and founder of the Last Beach Cleanup. The chief focus of her criticism is a common one: plastics.

“Companies actively use recycling as a distraction and an excuse,” Dell told me. She sees many corporate recycling pledges as a means of evading actual climate action.

Environmental advocates maintain that plastics are largely single-use: A 2020 Greenpeace USA survey found that plastics with resin codes #3–7 are virtually impossible to recycle, because of limited facility processing capabilities and insufficient market demand. Lawsuits are currently ongoing against Walmart and Keurig Green Mountain, arguing that those companies have violated Federal Trade Commission guidance by presenting plastic items as recyclable. The corporate giants have defended themselves against the allegations and emphasized their commitment to sustainability. (Walmart said in a statement that the company is “a strong advocate for the environment” and recycling, while Keurig has maintained in court that its labels advise consumers to “check locally” regarding recycling options.)

Other industry groups and corporations have also strongly disputed Greenpeace’s report and broader thesis. Some are members of the U.S. Plastics Pact, a large-scale voluntary effort driven by TRP and other groups that aims to achieve 100 percent reusable, recyclable, or compostable plastic packaging by 2025, among several other goals. Their focus is creating a market for plastics that keeps them in circulation, rather than dooming them to disposal.

Critics say focusing on getting hard-to-recycle materials out of the recycling system altogether would do more to curb climate and environmental issues. Dell suggested going back to “core four” recyclables (cardboard, plastic bottles, glass bottles, and aluminum cans), since items such as plastic film and bags are notorious for burdening recycling facilities. But she also cited the Jevons paradox, the economic idea that increasing the efficiency of a resource’s use also increases its consumption. Rather than prioritizing fixing recycling, she said, people should place greater emphasis on scaling back their waste to begin with.

Others agree that a reliance on mass-producing virgin materials poses a far bigger climate threat than limited recycling access, or habits such as wish-cycling. Minter said that some Western countries could benefit from looking to other parts of the world where, by economic necessity, people have formed better habits around recirculating resources. Porter, too, worries that recycling can perpetuate consumption and waste. A reliance on recycling, she said, can draw attention away from prioritizing “reduce and reuse,” which do far more to lower emissions.

“I don't want people to think that what they do as an individual doesn’t matter,” she said, but added that “we won't recycle our way out of this crisis.”

That doesn't mean giving up on recycling; instead, Porter advised thinking of it as a key part of materials-management efforts, rather than a singular solution to climate change. In essence, people should keep their enthusiasm for recycling alive and active—but they shouldn’t stop there.