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Monday Mailbag: Doesn’t recycling just end up in a landfill anyway?

Just as we were reaching into the mailbag to answer one of your burning questions, an Uber driver threw me a fastball. While en route home from the airport last week, she asked where I had been – and I said Haiti. Naturally, that led into a broader discussion about what I do for a living. This drive isn’t the first time I’ve been challenged with this week’s question, so I’m taking the opportunity to set the record straight in our regular Q & A.


Ok, you work in recycling, I have a question for you: My daughter-in-law tells me that it’s not worth my time to recycle because they don’t actually send it anywhere, it just ends up in a landfill. Is that true?


You should recycle. Every time. Anywhere you are. You. Should. Always. Recycle.

That’s the short answer. Ok, you’re worried that your recycling isn’t actually being recycled. That’s a fair concern because after it’s picked up it disappears and you never see it again. Who knows where it goes?

Here’s a recycling facility in Hondorus. This is where recycling goes after it has been collected.

In Pittsburgh and our surrounding suburbs, it goes to MRF on Neville Island.

I don’t live in Pittsburgh. How do I know my stuff is actually being recycled?

I’ll be honest with you. I know a lot about recycling in Pittsburgh, in Haiti, in Honduras, and in a few other countries where Thread is looking into for future supply chains. I can’t prove that every single municipality in the United States recycles the way they should; but, that brings me to my next argument.

Even if you know that your recycling is ending up in a landfill, you should separate it and put it in the blue bin anyway.

Why? Because you’re building the habit. And once recycling does start happening in your area, you’ll already be accustomed to preparing your waste for recycling. While you’re building this habit, might I suggest reaching out to your city council, town sheriff, or state representative and bugging them until real recycling options are made available.

But I hear that it takes more energy to recycle material than it does to make it in the first place.

The National Recycling Coalition begs to differ. They state that it takes 95% less energy to recycle aluminum than it does to make it from raw materials. Making recycled steel saves 60%, recycled newspaper 40%, recycled plastic 70%, and recycled glass 40%.

But let’s assume otherwise. Recycling is supposed to be a last resort. You’re supposed to reduce and reuse before you recycle, remember? Also, accounting for energy usage depends on the point in the supply chain at which you begin tracking. Drilling for oil, refining it, shipping it around the world as a polymer and THEN finally turning it into a plastic bottle takes plenty of resources and energy.

But, I’ve read that it’s actually more expensive to recycle than it is to just create new stuff.

Recycled material is a commodity. Just like any commodity, the global market changes daily and prices shift accordingly. In the not-too-distant past, OPEC was keeping oil at extremely low prices. This caused the virgin plastic to be priced more cheaply than recycled plastic, so sometimes, yes, it is more expensive to recycle than to make “new” products.

I don’t understand why this would impact an individual’s recycling habits in the U.S. though. If your municipality is going to collect recycled materials, the pricing should have little effect on you. Let the recycling plants worry about pricing. Plenty of them are having a hard time right now. The least you can do is supply them with raw material.

Here at Thread, we take recycling serious. It’s kinda a big deal.

I need more convincing.

  • If we increase U.S. recycling rates to 75% it would create 1.5 Million jobs.
  • It’s estimated that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Recycling prevents plastic from getting washed out into the ocean.
  • There’s an estimated $80 – $120 Billion lost annually in plastic packaging alone. That is a huge amount of money we are burying in the ground.
  • Landfills are spreading and growing across the country. We could recycle more and reverse this trend.
  • People who recycle are more intelligent, thinner, and report having more quality friendships than average. (ok, I made this last one up, but, probably.)

Editor’s note: We revise questions and answers for length and then throw in a few links, photos, and video clips to keep you on your toes. Go ahead, submit a question.

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