Does Recycling Plastic Still Make Sense? Today’s Recycling Crisis, Explained

The Vox Podcast Today, Explained focuses on recycling and incineration – and their relative merits after the recent huge shifts in the recycling marketplace.

Panelists at MACo’s 2019 summer conference discuss recycling challenges

Maryland counties already know about the upheaval in the recycling enterprise – substantially triggered by new materials policies from China, and abetted by shifts in both technology and consumer behavior. A recent MACo conference featured a panel discussing exactly this: “Reduce, Reuse … Now What?”

Vox media’s podcast Today, Explained took its own turn at these issues, with an analysis of incineration as an alternative to recycling – with intriguing results. From a transcript of the podcast:

[Podcast host] NOAM: Think about every individual cost in that journey.

[Thomas Kinnaman. Economics. Bucknell University.] THOMAS: The cost of the trucks, the equipment, the labor, the gasoline necessary to go around and collect the recycled materials to transport them to market the materials and then processed.

THOMAS: This requires energy, as well as additional labor.

NOAM: All of that energy and all of that labor has a significant environmental cost.

NOAM: In the end, adding it all up…

THOMAS: Plastic is one of those materials where the benefits are outweighed by the costs. My results suggest maybe we shouldn’t even be considering recycling for plastic. Given that the social costs seem to be higher than if we were to do other things with it.

jbareham_171108_2129_0080.0Give the provocatively titled episode “Burn Baby Burn” a listen online, or by searching for Today, Explained on your favorite podcast platform.

Michael Sanderson

Executive Director Maryland Association of Counties