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Plastic Recycling vs. Climate Change: Part 3 – The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Erik Devereux
January 23, 2023

This is the third column in this series in which I argue against municipal plastic recycling programs because such recycling does not work and there are negative consequences for the environment (here are the first column and the second column). This column takes a closer look at municipal household waste in Montgomery County, Maryland where I reside. Within the waste stream there are good, bad and ugly options for recycling. If Montgomery County focused more on the good and let the others go, there would be benefits for the environment including reducing the county’s carbon emissions. From the beginning, the focus of these columns has been on looking at waste management from the perspective of climate change as the only relevant criterion at this moment.

My primary source of information is a 2019 report by the Montgomery County Office of Legislative Oversight which advises the elected County Council on policy issues. That report found the County collected 288,000 tons of household waste in 2018, distributed per the chart accompanying this column. Of that waste, 61 percent was sent to be incinerated in a plant that co-generates electricity (releasing many tons of CO2 into the atmosphere) and 39 percent was intended for recycling. Note that I say “intended” because there is limited information available regarding what ultimately happened to much of that 39 percent.

Let’s divide that 39 percent into good, bad and ugly options for recycling based on practicality, market factors and impact on the climate.

The Good (recycling is living up to promise):

  • Yard trim. Montgomery County diverts yard trim (much of it tree leaves collected in the fall) into composting, and produces a commercially sold leaf mulch available at local garden centers. This prevents methane release from landfilling yard trim and CO2 release from burning it.
  • Aluminum cans: recycling of aluminum is energy efficient and greatly reduces the carbon footprint of the aluminum industry.
  • Cardboard: economic demand for recycling cardboard boxes is so high that theft has become an issue.

The Bad (offers some environmental benefits):

  • Other metals: Montgomery County mostly does not collect metals other than aluminum or tin cans at curbside. I routinely see freelance “scrappers” patrolling my neighborhood on trash day to collect larger metal items and residents can bring such to a central collection point. There are energy efficiencies available from recycling mixed metals.
  • Mixed office paper: recycling of mixed paper has some energy advantages relative to making paper anew, but the resulting products usually are not of similar quality. The net environmental impact of recycling mixed office paper is unclear.
  • Plastic milk bottles: These are the only type of plastic in the waste stream easily recycled in ways that save energy and reduce demand for hydrocarbon feedstocks. These also can be replaced by paper containers (especially for sizes less than a gallon), greatly reducing the use of hydrocarbons in consumer products.

The Ugly (recycling is just “greenwashing”):

  • Plastics other than milk bottles: Much of these simply cannot be recycled. They should be landfilled (not incinerated) to sequester their carbon.
  • Glass: There appears to be no recycling alternatives for glass other than possible use of ground-up glass as a construction material. Glass should be landfilled if that reduces the carbon footprint of managing it in the waste stream.

Now let’s look at what is inside the 61 percent of waste that is handled as trash. Noteworthy here are kitchen scraps (especially vegetable and fruit waste). If these go into a landfill, they will decompose and produce methane. The best alternative is to compost such scraps with yard trim but Montgomery County does not collect kitchen scraps at this time. Many of my environmentally progressive neighbors currently contract with 3rd party companies to collect and compost their scraps at a cost of about $20 per month per household. I’m on the fence regarding the environmental value of this practice as it requires fleets of gasoline-burning trucks to collect the scraps every week. Most of the kitchen waste in Montgomery County currently gets incinerated along with everything else that households put out in trash cans.

In fact, much of what residents put out in trash could be composted including used paper plates, paper napkins and tissues. If Montgomery County were to make composting a priority, that might divert much of the current trash away from the incinerator. There are subsidiary concerns such as keeping vermin from thriving at composting sites (which is why I do not compost at my home) and mitigating the spread of disease (soiled paper products harbor bacteria and viruses). This is how it is with any consideration related to climate change—there are always difficult tradeoffs to navigate.

My primary recommendations are to abandon recycling most plastics and all glass, and try to increase recycling of mixed metals and kitchen waste. On net, I believe the result would be an important reduction in CO2 and methane emissions. If climate change is the priority, than municipalities like Montgomery County need to face these facts and realign their waste management practices accordingly.

Author: Erik Devereux is a consultant to nonprofits and higher education and is an executive-in-residence at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland. He has a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Political Science, 1985) and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin (Government, 1993). He is the author of Methods of Policy Analysis: Creating, Deploying, and Assessing Theories of Change (available for free here). Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @eadevereux.

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