Recycling Helps, but It’s Not All You Can Do for the Environment

LIKE most households, we recycle pretty religiously. It’s easy, though, because our town in suburban New York allows us to throw pretty much everything into one bin, and it gets picked up at the curb.

Recycling has become so automatic that if we’re out and there’s no place to recycle that soda can or bottle, it feels slightly illicit to just drop it in the trash. It’s like littering. You just don’t do it.

Lately, however, I started wondering — are we really doing anything with all this recycling besides feeling better about the stuff we buy?

Much of the discussion has focused on the economic impact. That issue has been batted back and forth with mixed results, although most experts now agree that cities have become more experienced and more effective — and therefore made it more cost-efficient — to recycle most products rather than dump them in landfills.

I’m more curious about what impact it has on other environmental behavior. And when I started looking at that more closely, I discovered that there’s an intense debate going on about this issue.

Recycling “is good civic behavior,” said Samantha MacBride, an assistant professor of public affairs at Baruch College, City University of New York, but it’s oversold as a panacea to a whole host of environmental ills, from overflowing landfills to global warming. “I wouldn’t say that people who do recycling feel they’ve done everything they can by participating, but they think there’s a lot more being achieved than there actually is,” she said. Nationally, said Professor MacBride, who is the author of “Recycling Reconsidered” (MIT Press, 2011), recycling prevents only about one-third of all trash from ending up in landfills.

Partly, she said, that is because people are not recycling everything they can. Partly it’s because the recycling model in most municipalities of picking up a bin with all the recyclables mixed together, especially the plastics, doesn’t work well.

“There’s a huge range of plastic materials and hundreds of different resins,” Professor MacBride said. “We need markets and processes to route them back into production and for the most part, those processes don’t exist.”

So some plastics are sent in bales to China and developing countries, and some are disposed of in landfills.

The emphasis, she said, has to be much more on regulating and recycling waste from manufacturers rather than consumer waste.

The other problem is that while “recycling is a wonderful thing to do if we’re comparing it to throwing stuff away, it has become a reward for consumption,” said Michael Maniates, a professor of environmental science at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania.

Gernot Wagner, an economist with the Environmental Defense Fund and author of “But Will the Planet Notice: How Smart Economics Can Save the World,” (Hill and Wang, 2011), agrees. “There’s a well-documented phenomenon known as single-action bias, where people do one thing and move on,” he said. “People don’t explicitly think, ‘I’ve recycled a cup and solved global warming,’ but rather once they’ve done an action like recycling, they feel consciously or subconsciously like they’ve done their part.”

Or as the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, which is affiliated with the Earth Institute at Columbia University, says on its Web site: “Although recycling is important, it should be but one activity in a series of behavior changes aimed at reducing climate change. Switching to wind or other renewable energies, consuming less meat, conserving daily energy use and eating locally grown food are other effective ways to mitigate climate change, to name but a few. However, if individuals and institutions participate in recycling programs, they may be prone to the single-action bias and feel like they are already doing enough to protect the environment.”

Hold on there, said Allen Hershkowitz, senior scientist and director of the solid waste project at the environmental organization the Natural Resources Defense Council. “I’ve never dealt with a person or company who said, ‘We recycle so we don’t have to do anything else.’ It’s, ‘We recycle, what else can we do?’ ”

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