The recycling industry has taken a beating lately in the press.
Earlier this year Waste Management CEO David Steiner declared the US recycling industry is facing a “nationwide crisis” as recycling facilities increasingly lose money and demand plummets for recyclables. And while it’s not a new debate, John Tierney’s latest New York Times opinion piece — similar to his 1996 “Recycling is Garbage” article — argues recycling it too costly and isn’t benefiting the environment.
Whether it’s profitable or not, recycling must go on because of the imbalance between limited natural resources and human material demand, says Lux Research analyst Jerrold Wang. “In the short term future, recycling of some materials are profitable, while some are not. But in the long term, government will continue imposing tax on the materials, which have environmental influence during exploitation and landfill, just like what they did for tire. And these regulatory tax or incentive will make recycling profitable.”
Life Cycle Costs
David Dornfeld, the Will C. Hall Family Chair in Engineering in Mechanical Engineering at University of California Berkeley who also leads the Laboratory for Manufacturing and Sustainability, says Tierney’s opinion pieces and similar articles miss the point.
“There are a couple of things these articles don’t pay attention to,” Dornfeld says. Attacks on recycling ignore the value of a circular economy and don’t consider the other life cycle impacts, which include environmental impacts, he says.
“If you weight the total life cycle cost of those resources, if you have a greenhouse gas emissions trail than the life cycle cost must consider that as well,” Dornfeld says. “So these very simple closed-loop, very narrow economic analysis doesn’t stand up very well.”
Circular Economy Gaining Momentum
The circular economy concept — which emphasizes keeping resources in use for as long as possible, extracting maximum value from them while in use and then recovering and repurposing products and materials at the end of life — is increasingly gaining strength among sustainability professionals. The Ethical Corporation says it’s the no. 2 biggest opportunity in 2015/2016 (industry collaboration is no. 1), according to its Top Global Supply Chain Sustainability Trends 2015 whitepaper, which includes responses from 415 corporate social responsibility and supply chain professionals from around the world.
Companies including Google and Dell are partnering with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to help drive the circular economy through initiatives such as Dell’s closed-loop recycled plastics supply chain, for example, which has seen the company recycle 4.2 million pounds of closed-loop plastics into enclosures for new Dell products.