Recycling Isn’t So Green, After All

This evening (Shanghai time) I appeared on Today with Pat Kenny, broadcast by RTÉ 1 in Dublin (I’ll post a link to the podcast as soon as it’s available), to discuss the collapse of the international scrap recycling markets over the last three months, and the negative effect that the collapse has had on municipal recycling programs (in Ireland). To my surprise, this topic is becoming rather popular in national and local media, worldwide, with much of the coverage focused on China’s role in the collapse (unfairly so, as I’ll get to).

Following my one-on-one interview with Kenny, which focused exclusively on China, Kenny led a round-table with several individuals familiar with the Irish recycling trade, including a member of Ireland’s Green Party. It was an excellent discussion (again, I’ll post a link once the podcast is available). But, inadvertently, the most illuminating moment came when Kenny asked the Green Party member to offer suggestions on what Ireland should do with its recyclables now that there aren’t any export markets left to which it can be sent. Over the course of nearly five minutes, the Green Party member hemmed and hawed, with Kenney becoming increasingly impatient and agitated, until she finally offered three suggestions: land filling, fuel for cement factories, and “research” on alternatives. To state the obvious: the first eliminates the need to sort recyclables in the first place, the second involves fueling one of the world’s most polluting industries, and the third isn’t really a suggestion.


Now, I don’t doubt that good intentions of the Green Party, just as I don’t doubt the good intentions of the environmentalists who spent the last decade encouraging and building recycling efforts throughout the developed world. But, with good will to both groups, I humbly suggest that the recycling industry, the business that does the actual recycling, doesn’t look at a curbside bin of newspaper as a sign of personal, green, and/or civic virtue. It looks at it as a cheap alternative to trees for making new paper products. Period. If the green movement hopes to have a credible role in finding alternatives to China and other foreign importers as a “solution” to the developed world’s recycling, it’s going to need to start thinking more like that – that is, more like scrap men – and less like residents of Walden Pond.

That might sound rather cold-blooded and cynical, but I suggest that it’s just a particularly clear-eyed view of how the global recycling trade works, and one that the environmental community has – for whatever reason – avoided for much too long. For the last decade, the global boom in scrap commodities has been driven not by green consciousness, but instead by consumer demand for products that require raw materials. Many of those products have been manufactured in China – everything from aluminum auto parts to the cardboard that packages those parts – and thus China has become the world’s largest importer of scrap recyclables. But believe me, China didn’t take on this role for philanthropic purposes. It took the role on because, at a time of unprecedented market demand for its products from the developed world, it didn’t have sufficient domestic sources of raw materials.

It was an extraordinary cycle while it lasted: the developed world shipped vast amounts of its valuable recyclable resources to China (other countries in lesser quantities) which processed them into new products for export back to those same developed countries. So long as the developed world had the resources to continue buying stuff, home recyclers in the US, Ireland, and elsewhere could fool themselves into thinking that they were being “green” by sorting that carton for the new PC from the last year’s collected issues of Outside and the microbrew bottles – and then placing it all on the corner for pick-up by a big green truck.

In retrospect, this was utterly unsustainable. Sooner or later, the good times would stop rolling, the consumers would stop buying, and those invisible hands buying all the empty Chianti bottles would close up shop. Which is precisely what happened over the last three months as the recyclable markets declined by, in some cases, as much as 90% in the wake of the Financial Crisis. The waste cycle, at least insofar as it includes Asia, is now broken.

In the last couple of weeks I’ve noticed a tendency among some reporters and environmentalists to blame the collapse of the recycling markets upon China and, to a lesser extent, India. “If only China had continued to buy our recyclables,” this line of reporting and argumentation goes, “we wouldn’t now be looking for landfills and cement factories to handle this material which had once seemed so green.” Of course, this is preposterous. China is no more responsible for the decline in the price of scrap recyclables than it is responsible for the decline of the CD in the age of the mp3 file. Instead, it has been, and will continue to be, among the cheapest and most efficient means by which consumers in developed countries achieve a middle class style with all of the trimmings. It enables consumer lifestyles, but it certainly doesn’t create them.

That’s a tough message for the average curbside recycler and environmentalist to stomach. But it’s one that they, along with Ireland’s Green Party, and environmentalists worldwide, need to embrace if they want to find a viable alternative to landfilling for their recyclables.

Let me put this differently. Many if most factories anywhere in the world (not just the EU and US) have a loading dock in back of the plant where there’s one or two bins that contain a wide range of recyclable. Sometimes those recyclables are the ribbon-like grindings from blocks of metal; sometimes they’re clippings from sheets of metal. Whatever they are, they have value. But unlike the average residential curbside recycler, the average factory owner doesn’t look at those bins as a sign of virtue or green consciousness. Instead, he or she looks at them as costly waste that couldn’t be avoided and has to be sold at a loss; and if he or she is a good factory owner, somebody at the factory is in charge of figuring out a way to reduce that waste stream.

In my experience, Chinese people tend to understand this dichotomy better than those from the developed world. There are numerous reasons for this, the most important being the fact that poverty inspires thrift, and China remains a poor and thrifty country. It’s the rare Chinese neighborhood that lacks a team of scrap collectors, most of whom work on margins that are much, much tighter than those faced by their larger counterparts in developed countries. More so than their counterparts in the developed world, China’s recyclers seem to recognize the value in what others throw away. And this factor, as much as its lower-cost labor and manufacturing markets, has accounted for the success of China’s recycling industries over the last two decades. It’s something that the developed world might learn from as it searches for alternatives to the global recycling markets for its Bose speaker cartons.


  1. Leaving aside the totally gratuitous reference to Walden Pond, this is damn good stuff.

  2. I understood that in the early years of ‘recycling’ they would just collect the sorted recyclables and toss it all in a landfill. It took a while to develop the downstream business of sorting, grading and actually recycling the recyclables. Some of this was above board, but of course there is also a long history of the mob cutting corners in the waste disposal business. It seems that the recent situation in which there has been a market for these materials has been an aberration…

    I don’t know whether to feel bad or relieved that those dumpster diving recyclers in China may be out of work. They’re hardcore.

  3. I think its little like organic food consumers in big cities who never visit a farm. They don’t know where their food comes from or how difficult it is to grow. They don’t know where their recycling goes and how difficult it is to handle.

  4. I’ve read the blog for a while and it’s very interesting to see you write this.

    I’m sure you’re familiar with the term ‘greenwashing’. If we look beyond the world of corporate and political greenwash there is a world of environmentalists who understand exactly what you wrote about the true nature of the industry.

    The real problem is ‘development’ and extreme capitalism. What actually needs to be done to protect the environment is a total change of lifestyle. Bye bye petrol cars and jet flight, bye bye consumerism etc.

    You can make that observation about the Greens and about recycling … so what’s your conclusion. What do you think should actually be done?

  5. Andy – I really appreciate this comment.

    However, I think you’re misunderstanding my meaning a bit, especially as expressed in the latter half of the post. It seems to me that we’re closer on this issue than you might have taken away on a first reading.

    My overall point is that there’s nothing inherently green about recycling. Recycling, as a commodity, is nothing more than a valuable, reusable resource that somebody, or something, cannot find a use for (or chooses not to). So they throw it out or sell it. If you’re a factory, trying to control costs and excess consumption, growth in your recycling is considered a negative. It means that you’re wasting more and more. And yet, over the last decade, municipal recycling programs in the US and the EU have been celebrating the growing volume of recyclables flowing into their recycling programs as a “green good.” But, of course, it’s not: it just means that people are throwing away perfectly usable stuff that they either don’t have the imagination to re-use on their own, or don’t want to.

    In China and other developing countries, there’s actually very little recycling because old products are re-used and re-habbed and re-used. The re-use industry trumps recycling. Now, I can’t imagine Ireland, the EU, or the US suddenly shifting to re-used economies. But, on the other hand, there are industry groups (like the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries in the US) that have been pushing for manufacturers to “design for recycling” for years. That is, they’ve been encouraging manufacturers to design for re-use.

    I think that this is the approach that the green movement needs to take. Instead of encouraging people to throw things away in the correct bins, it’s time for a push to encourage the development of products and processes that are re-usable and easily re-habbed. To a large extent, that’ll solve some of the consumption issues that you discussed, while spurring innovation.

    And it’s already happening. Several US packaging firms are developing easily re-usable packaging; car companies have developed reusable parts (think of a secondary market alternator, for example), and – in China, at least – the monitor remanufacturing industry is a growing sector. It’s all do-able, and it’s all an alternative to the still energy intensive process of recycling in its current form.

  6. What Adam seems to be saying about the Greens and recycling seems to be generalizable as: “Everyone should learn a little microeconomics (also known as business sense).” You’d be amazed at how powerful a tool the market (with all its faults) can be for promoting social values. Who would’ve thought pollution would be tradeable? And that giving people the “right” to pollute would, within ten years, basically get rid of acid rain?

    There’s also an interesting analogy to Japan (which is much richer than China, but also resource-poor). Japan had door-to-door scrap collectors well into the 1980s. It was the growth of municipal recycling programs in the US that ultimately destroyed this cottage industry in Japan.

    Japanese paper mills that had been practicing “extreme recycling,” with newspaper fibers recycled half a dozen times, until the pulp literally broke down. American bundled newspapers were practically virgin wood in comparison. You can see what a wasteful people we are in comparison.

  7. A very good piece,
    their is and hass been a lot of GREENBS for years and while it was all rolling along nobody asked where or how REAL recycling happens, I visited many factories in China and say the whold story, it is not that we cant DIY but the bottom line is costs of labour, in EU and US etc V China and also dare I say waste water emmission standards, workplace machinery safety standards, etc it is about three things COST < COST< COST, to turn mixed waste into recycled materials and not to talk about transport cost is about the same to China as to MAinland EU from ireland so even if we did recycle we would still have to export to sell our products.

  8. “That might sound rather cold-blooded and cynical”

    Nothing cold of cynical about it. Thanks for telling it like it is.

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