Soon after we tumbled into the millennium, the small advertising agency I work with in Arizona was hired to develop a series of ads and print pieces promoting recycling in the border town of Nogales, population 50,000. Nogales Recycles felt like holy work. Few cities of Nogales’s size, especially ones with sister cities just across the U.S.-Mexican border, took recycling seriously. Our goal was to create a campaign so convincing the residents of Nogales would.

Fast-forward a decade, and I’m not sure how good I feel about that fairly successful campaign.

Last October a friend forwarded an article from the New York Times that made a strong case against recycling. The author asked that we consider that this habit that makes us feel so good about ourselves might not be doing much good at all. He argued that we’ve been brainwashed (no doubt, in part, by civic campaigns like Nogales Recycles) to embrace recycling, but that it doesn’t pay off either ecologically or economically.

His perspective is that it makes some sense for paper and aluminum but not for plastic and glass—especially when we use precious resources to say, rinse out nearly worthless plastic containers with water heated with coal-generated electricity.The article quotes the CEO of Waste Management: “If you believe recycling is good for the planet and that we need to do more of it, then there’s a crisis to confront. Trying to turn garbage into gold costs a lot more than expected. We need to ask ourselves: What is the goal here?”

Recycling PlasticLast fall the cost of oil was around $50 a barrel. Since then, with oil down to $30 a barrel, recycling companies are facing unscalable mountains of unsaleable plastic. What do we do with it?

It also seems that recycling the green glass wine bottles are made of only makes sense in wine regions like the Bay Area. Most everywhere else, the cost of breaking wine bottles down into cullet and converting cullet to glass uses more resources and more energy than making new bottles from virgin materials.

One progressive city I read about tried to suspend curbside glass collection, but its citizens wouldn’t let them. Now the glass is picked up by recycling trucks, bagged or boxed at the recycling center, and eventually re-trucked to a landfill. That’s how zealous we can be about recycling.

Some waste management insiders feel the main problem with recycling is that the average materials recycling facility (MRF) can’t deal with the current materials stream. They point to all the lightweight plastic used by sustainably minded companies for products and packaging being so light that current sorting technology often mistakes flattened plastic bottles for paper. The industry would thrive if only we upgraded our collection and separation systems with technology adapted to a changing materials mix.

Zero waste advocates, the Northern California Recycling Association, views the above as an admission by the industry of their responsibility for recycling’s failings. What most of us think of as the big blue container is known as “single stream,” and is exactly what the waste management industry pushed hard for a dozen or so years ago.

Blue_Recycling_BinMany pro-recyclers insist that practically everything is too valuable to throw away and/or that recycling’s cheaper than landfilling. Which actually isn’t true. We’re simply charged less for recycling: with curbside pick-up, we get a very sweet deal. Fees are kept low even as recycled commodity prices fall and processing costs go up. Processing can easily cost recyclers $90 a ton while disposal costs around $35 a ton. What most of us pay for collection doesn’t begin to pay for the 4.5 pounds of refuse the average American household produces every day.

Okay, you see where I’m going with this. We need to consider when and how recycling makes sense. That’s what I’ll look at in Part Two of Reconsidering Recycling.

Note: The concept behind the Nogales Recycles campaign revolved around the city’s passion for basketball. We used b-ball metaphors to inspire residents to play the recycle game. You’ll find lots of examples from the campaign here.

You can read the N.Y. Times article: “The Reign of Recycling” here.