The Limits of Recycling

I’ve spent the better part of a week in Japan, now, visiting some of the most advanced recycling facilities in the world. In some ways, it’s been exhilarating: Japan’s strict regulatory structure ensures that the most difficult wastes – say, automobiles – are recycled as far as current technology and economics allow. At the same time, though, I find myself increasingly despondent: despite all of the technology, will, and expense, the simple fact is that a significant part of the first world’s waste isn’t recyclable. Sometimes, it’s just too hazardous; sometimes, there’s just nothing that can be made from a synthetic material after a first use; sometimes, the costs are just too high; and often, the problem is some combination of the three. I’m not talking about nuclear reactors here, either: I’m talking about hybrid automobiles (yes, that Prius), air-conditioners, washing machines and the other accessories of daily life that – for better or worse – many of us assume float into some sort of Green Heaven if we just drop them off at the local recycling station. Below, an image taken in one of the best and biggest television recycling plants in Japan – and that means, one of the biggest and best in the world.


Longtime readers of this blog know that I’m sympathetic but highly skeptical – and even critical – of some of the more outlandish claims made by environmentalists in favor or recycling. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t recycle. Goodness knows, Tokyo is better off for having its televisions recycled to a (world beating) 50% recovery rate than having them dumped into a landfill. But that’s still 50% if you do everything correctly in the world’s most advanced recycling economy. I think the environmental community, and the recycling industry, could do a better job at informing people about these returns.

Meanwhile, China – the world’s most ambitious recycling economy – has spent the last five years or so promising its citizens and companies that it would begin to implement something called a “circular economy” over the next decade or so. I wish the officials and companies involved in this noble effort nothing but the best in their quest, and over the next 18 months or so I hope to highlight both the possibilities – and the limits – of such a system.


  1. What’s the potential of a storage system where the partially-processed waste is stored for future extraction with future technology? Can I invest in potentially-recyclable materials? Or would the cost of storage exceed the potential benefits of future extraction?

  2. Also, I’m annoyed at Neo-Marxisme/Neo-Japonisme; after reading it for a long time, I get the impression that Japan gets better expats than China does, although after reading a lot of the comments it seems as though its blog structure is that Mr. Marx says something controversial and evidently wrong, and subsequently a dogpiler’s contigent corrects him in the comments thread.

    Regarding Japan’s attempts at recycling, what are the social, economic, and political forces creating its condition? Who pushes the recycling? Is there a patronage economy where wasteful recycling is encouraged as a system of creating jobs and economic stimulus? What about China’s? From watching Chinese development (poorly) for quite a few years, it seems as though the government has either been schizophrenic (restoration here, rampant pollution there) or half-hearted in its environmental policy. Nationally speaking, which factions push for which policies? Is environmentalism purely a phenomenon of the intelligensia or have CPC-attached thinktanks necessitated its existence?

  3. Inst – Lots of questions! I think the cost of storage would far exceed any potential value at some undetermined future date. Say, for example, leaded television glass from hundreds of millions – billions? – of televisions. I think the primary driver for Japan’s recycling is the age-old feeling that Japan is a small country with limited resources (true and true). I think many of the individuals involved in China’s circular economy law are well-intentioned environmentalists (even), but overall the gov’t favors growth over conservation. China Environmental Law Blog documents that phenomenon better than anyone.

  4. @1–it is called a ‘landfill’… not being completely sarcastic, either–There is really no reason we can’t dig up a landfill and reclaim whatever materials remain once it becomes economically feasible to do so. In this, and many other, respects, non-recyclable items are functionally equivalent to rocks. The main issue with waste materials is toxicity–many items emit toxins slowly, from landfills, or quickly, from incineration or recycling.

    Perhaps the ultimate solution will be to build giant state-of-the-art recycling/incineration/power-generating stations on isolated islands or ocean platforms… the waste can be ‘detoxed’ to the best of our abilities and the residue can be sent to the bottom of the ocean. Call it ‘sequestration’.

  5. Mr. Minter: Thank you for your impressions, and thank you more for recommending CELB.

    joe: So, is the junk underneath a landfill reclaimable? Can it be considered a type of asset; when landfill turns into golf courses, or god forbid, residential housing, is the ownership of the junk transferred? Can landfill junk be converted into a security, which can be later sold once the technology for reclaimation emerges?

  6. Your aside about the Prius intrigues me. Which parts of hybrid cars are hard to recycle?

  7. William – In one sense, there’s no difference between a hybrid and a regular car when it comes to recycling. Both types of vehicles are recycled using the same processes, and leave behind roughly the same ratios of unrecyclable materials (ASR, or “automotive shredder residue”). Specifically, hybrid batteries are notoriously difficult and expensive to recycle. So, in that sense, you might make the case that a Prius is LESS recyclable than a traditional car.

  8. Hybrids are actually much worse for the environment as it turns out. When you account for the energy of mining the material for the battery (Canada), shipping it to Germany for processing, shipping that material to China to make the battery that is placed in the car in Japan and shipped to the US and other countries, alot of energy has been expended.

    Also, road tests against similar sized, well maintained cars show comparable fuel milelage. Top Gear did a track test where a M3 tailed a Prius around their test track at 50 mph and the M3 actually bested the Prius by 2 mpg. European diesel technology is very fuel efficient and superchargers are coming back into vogue to boost non-hybrid efficiency.

    As for mining materials from landfills, the problem is when you mix alot of different materials in there, seal with soil and some water intrudes, you get lots of odd chemical reactions that can degrade the material you may wish to remove later. Toxic/explosive gases can also build up.

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