Am I really recycling?
June 17, 2005 5:55 AM   Subscribe

I recently moved to the city of Cleveland, which in 2003 dismantled its curbside recycling pick-up program. I drop off my (paper, glass, plastic, aluminum) recycling at a drop-off center. In a discussion with neighbors, they were dubious that the city is actually recycling what I put in the special dumpsters, but rather just dumping it. What do you think? Am I wasting my time by taking my recyclables to the special location? There was special skepticism for paper/magazine recycling, which is a pain in the neck to haul.
posted by picklebird to Law & Government (21 answers total)
This is the city's official statement.
posted by picklebird at 5:56 AM on June 17, 2005

If they're not, there's a big fat front page news story in it for some enterprising freelancer.
posted by By The Grace of God at 6:08 AM on June 17, 2005

I have asked myself this same question and am eager to see whether anyone can shed some light on the matter. The drop-off centers where I live in Asheville, NC changed their system a little while ago so that all recycling goes in one of three categories, either "cardboard," "mixed paper," or "containers." The switch to the broad category of "containers" when there used to be separate bins for aluminum, plastics, etc. made me, like picklebird, a little skeptical as to whether or not my recycling was/is actually being recycled.

I would be interested to know whether such recycling fears are well-founded or are simply paranoia (or wishful thinking for an excuse for laziness).
posted by Crushinator at 6:16 AM on June 17, 2005

Here we have only two dumpsters: cardboard & containers, and mixed paper. Hmmm.
posted by picklebird at 6:20 AM on June 17, 2005

In general, I think this kind of argument is an excuse for laziness and a wish to not feel guilty about throwing away recyclables.

But there is no single answer to your question, since recycling is not nationalized. It depends on how progressive your city chooses to be about waste disposal.

Here in Memphis we have curbside recycling and drop-off centers. The city makes $45/ton through the recycling program, including the savings on landfill fees. We generate a hell of a lot of tonnage. I mean, the beer bottles from my house alone...

Our recyclables are hauled to a central location where people hand sort everything into very specific categories. Our recycling contractor offers free public tours -- it's an amazing process to watch. The key to making money as a recycling contractor is to generate as many "pure" loads as possible, and they cannot rely on citizens to sort properly.

I suggest that you contact your city and ask if their recycling contractor permits tours or school field trips. If they do, you can invite your whole neighborhood on a fact-finding mission.
posted by naomi at 7:05 AM on June 17, 2005

In Paramus NJ you put all the aluminum/plastic/glass together for curbside pickup. I've been to the town dump, and they store it separately from the garbage, so I'm pretty sure they recycle. But this is a rich, liberal suburb.

Why not ask the garbagemen?

I think you should e-mail your local newspapers, I'm sure this would make an interesting story for one of their reporters to look into.
posted by exhilaration at 7:23 AM on June 17, 2005

There have been front page news stories on exactly this kind of dumping happening. So the answer is: Beats me. Some municipalities do it right, some haven't.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 7:26 AM on June 17, 2005

Keep doing it. At least you know you've done your part that way.
posted by tr33hggr at 7:52 AM on June 17, 2005

What naomi said. Everyone I've ever known who didn't utilize their town's recycling program claimed they were actually doing a good thing because recycling causes even MORE pollution, or the city didn't actually recycle, or some other lame excuse for why they couldn't make the effort to dump their plastic in a separate container from their garbage.

I also know people who claim they don't wear seatbelts because you're more likely to get killed wearing one. People will rationalize anything.
posted by bondcliff at 7:57 AM on June 17, 2005

I moved from Austin TX a few months ago and they were starting to refuse some of the curbside recyclables (such as broken-down cardboard boxes), so it does make me wonder.
posted by rolypolyman at 8:33 AM on June 17, 2005

There are good reasons to separate the garbage even if it isn't being recycled.

For example, I have heard that incineration can generate a fair chunk of electricity so long as all the wet garbage is removed first. Also, disposal of certain items is far less hazardous than other items, so the amount of effort put into safe storage can be reduced, which should reduce overall environmental impact. Finally, by separating you make it practical to recycle the stuff when it becomes economical.

That said, recycling is a very tiny little improvement, even if you divert almost everything. I am constantly astonished at how much packaging we have on everything, it is sickening!
posted by Chuckles at 8:34 AM on June 17, 2005

Penn & Teller did a show on this. I completely forget what they decided, although given it was a Bullshit! episode, I'm guessing they concluded that recycling is bullshit.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:26 AM on June 17, 2005

Picklebird -- Cleveland doesn't recycle bupkis. The whole program is a hoax. Who do you think wants your old damp cardboard and wet piles of newspapers? Who do you think runs the world's recycling programs? I'll tell you who: The same people who run the rest of the trash hauling industry -- organized crime. When recycling first hit in the early 1970s, the organized crime families who were already hauling trash simply painted a few of their trucks green, slapped re-cycling logos on them, and carried on with business as usual. This is especially true in a big organized crime city like Cleveland. (By the way, the New York Times Sunday Magazne did a cover story that revealed nearly all municipal recycling programs to be a total hoax about five years ago. Nobody paid attention. Municipalities did not suddenly cease their recycling programs. Why not? Because the guys who pick up the trash for recycling are scary, that's why.)
posted by Faze at 9:38 AM on June 17, 2005

I've been to a recycling center in Lakewood, and it certainly looked like there was recycling going on - everything separated, big machinery, stuff like that. Very unscientific, I know, and I can't promise that things are the same a few miles east. I'd say keep doing it, though - no reason to let other peoples' cynicism make you act less responsibly. Maybe try talking to local garbagemen or asking to see the city's facilities too.
posted by ubersturm at 9:44 AM on June 17, 2005

Here in Oakland, CA, they just moved to using one big bin for all recyclables -- glass, paper, plastic, aluminium, steel, all in together.

I can come up with some scenarios and mechanisms that would allow all this to be separated at the recycling depot, but I have no idea if this infrastructure actually exists.

If I was you, I'd do what Michael Moore did -- but in Cleveland, you might not want to follow all that closely in case you get accidentally buried underneath a pile of recycling. You know, accidentally.
posted by 5MeoCMP at 10:08 AM on June 17, 2005

I dunno about big cities, but the small city I grew up in definitely recycled (in the same way that naomi described - 10 or so people who are paid to hand-sort it. There's also a machine that sorts out glass etc from paper, which is pretty cool). I would know - I rode along with a garbage truck and a recycling truck for a few weeks 2 summers ago. Our town MAKES MONEY off of recycling, and the reason they don't want you to sort recycling any more is because you're just going to screw it up anyway, and the cities figure more people will recycle if they just have to throw everything in one big bin.

I don't know much about the organized crime/garbage dumping connection. We don't see much of that out here on the West Coast...
posted by muddgirl at 10:11 AM on June 17, 2005

I think this might be the NYT Magazine article Faze was talking about. (Google cache because the original's a PDF.) It's from 1996, though, so I don't know how accurate the info still is.
posted by occhiblu at 10:23 AM on June 17, 2005

BusinessWeek did a story a few years back on the Eco-Mafia, which makes billions of dollars by giving the lowest bids on recycling contracts, then dumping the stuff. The people who pay the companies may or may not know what's really happening. Don't tell me this only happens in Italy.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 11:59 AM on June 17, 2005

Penn & Teller did a show on this. I completely forget what they decided, although given it was a Bullshit! episode, I'm guessing they concluded that recycling is bullshit.

It kinda depended on what you were recycling, and it was interesting that they seemed more careful with this subject than they were with "love" or "religion" or a lot of stuff. But basically they said -- recycling paper is pointless. It's better to have a forest full of growing trees that are cut down (&replanted) than to have a factory using energy to recycle paper. They also said recycling uses up more energy than it saves, except in the case of aluminum, which is why many places pay you for aluminum (in states where there isn't already a deposit).

They also pointed out that we're nowhere near running out of land for landfills (though that's more of a NIMBY thing) and that landfills do actually produce energy as their methane is collected.
posted by dagnyscott at 7:25 PM on June 17, 2005

Here's the basic problem. Hardly anyone at the municipal level is required to recycle. Recycling is something that cities do ostensibly to be "green" and for good PR and as something the citizens want, but also because trash disposal is expensive and it's cost-effective to get some money back while reducing the waste stream.


Reycling isn't, for the most part, non-profit. Recycled goods are a commodity -- a product, just like any other. Well, usually cheaper than the raw equivalent and in poorer condition, but in direct competition. If the costs for raw materials go up -- the price paid for recycled materials goes up too. If it goes down, do the math. Demand varies. Let's say Cleveland (Hello, Cleveland!) recycles 5 million pounds of newsprint annually (pulling a number out of my ass), but let's also say that the market only exists for 4 million pounds of newsprint. What are they gonna do with the rest, eat it?

Framing this as simply fraud is misleading. Even a well-run recycling program often has trouble finding cost-effective (including recovery, transportation, etc.) markets for its materials. Some materials such as newsprint are readily recyclable and probably always sell; others such as aluminum cans are much more variable. Even the access to foreign markets for raw materials plays a factor, so as oil prices fluctuate, or global exchange rates flutter, your local municipality's recycling contractor may be unable to dispose of all the materials delivered to it.
posted by dhartung at 9:20 PM on June 17, 2005

A big part of the reason cities that do recycle are tending to have fewer categories for sorting is that they want people to recycle (see above), and they've generally found that making recycling as easy as possible helps increace the level of recycling.

In Seattle we have 3 categories of recyclables these days. Clean paper, cardboard, most plastics and metal cans go in one bin. Glass goes in another, and yard waste goes into a third, they've just started allowing non-meat foodwaste and food contaminated paper to go into the yardwaste (yardwaste gets composted by a private company and sold or gardening).
posted by Good Brain at 6:15 PM on June 18, 2005

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