Technological watch

Not all recycling created equal, analyst says

Seattle — David Allaway is here to challenge the popular view of recycling in society.

"Not all recycling is the same. And not all recycling is beneficial," said the senior policy analyst with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. "Like any industrial process, recycling can cause negative impacts as well as positive ones."

Most discussions about the costs of recycling, he said at a recent U.S. Department of Energy workshop examining the circularity of plastics in Seattle, are incomplete. "Discussions of economics inevitably focus on direct costs that are reflected in market prices, the price of commodities, the price of labor, capital, processing, transportation, the price of disposal," he said.

"But as any good economist will tell you, even the bad ones, these are not the only costs to society. When materials are produced, they can impact the environment, and these impacts result in economic costs to society that are not less than those reflected in market prices for recycling. They just show up in different ways," he said.

Recycling these days is too focused on the amount of material collected and diverted from disposal, Allaway said.

But there also needs to be consideration of other factors. Negative impacts, for example, can include used plastics in wastewater discharge from recycling facilities, chemical accumulation in recycled plastics and the export of plastics to countries that lack adequate infrastructure to manage the material, Allaway said.

"These outcomes represent a significant failure of policy and oversight and are a consequence of placing too much faith in the idea that recycling is inherently virtuous and beneficial," he said. "Which leads me to the next challenge, which is the disconnect I see between circularity as it is defined and circularity as it is practiced and understood.

"As someone who has worked in and around this topic for more than three decades, I can assure you that when the average person on the street hears the term circular economy or the typical politician speaks about circular economy, they are focused exclusively on increasing the amount of materials recycled," Allaway said.

"So what's wrong with increasing recycling? Nothing, as long as three other conditions are met. First of all, recycling needs to be implemented in the service of achieving higher-order societal goals, reducing pollution, conserving resources, not just an end goal in and of itself," he said.

"Second, circular solutions need to focus as much on the quality of their outcomes, as on increasing the tonnage that is kept in circular loops," Allaway said.

"And finally, circularity initiatives must not suck all of the proverbial oxygen out of the room and disable other meaningful solutions such as prevention, reuse, decarbonization and detoxification. And in my experience in the last three decades, these three conditions are rarely met," he said.

Recycling, Allaway said, has become a source of confusion for the typical person.

"This issue is one of the greatest barriers facing recycling today, that it's mutated into a confused mashup of slogans and marketing and a conflation of means with ends that have that has been exploited by interests that are leading us to a future of unsustainable circularity," he said.

"This leads me to what I think is the last major challenge, which involves a lack of supportive policy. Instead, in many states policy is failing to support a socially optimal level of recycling. And in others, there is an unbalanced emphasis on quantity of circularity and landfill diversion without adequate consideration of environmental and social outcomes," he said.

Oregon, he said, is trying to take a "middle path between these two extremes," Allaway said, through the passage of Senate Bill 582, which was signed into law in 2021. The law creates an extended producer responsibility framework where manufacturers will pay fees to help cover the cost of recycling their products at the end-of-life.

The law also calls for a 25 percent recycling goal for plastic packaging and foodservice items by 2028, 50 percent by 2040 and 70 percent by 2050.

Publication date: 19/06/2023

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Last update: 2022-01-31