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Are we recycling too much of our trash?

A recent study indicates that the costs of many recycling programs may outweigh their social benefits.

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Workers sort out plastic PET bottles at Asia's largest PET plastic recycling factory INCOM Resources Recovery in Beijing, in this May 7, 2013 file photo. Asian demand for plastic is set to defy economic slowdown in top consumer China and other nations, growing as plunging oil prices make it cheaper to churn out and as fast-expanding online markets boost appetite for items like packaging and wrapping.

REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon/File

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Although recycling has been understood for decades to provide economic and environmental benefits to society, new research shows that it may be best to recycle in moderation. 

"It makes sense to recycle commercial cardboard and some paper, as well as selected metals and plastics," J. Winston Porter, a former official at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), told The New York Times. "But other materials rarely make sense ... The zero-waste goal [outlined by cities like New York and Seattle] makes no sense at all – it's very expensive with almost no real environmental benefit."

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According to a recent study in the journal Nature, Americans throw away twice as much trash as the EPA previously thought. And while landfills are one of the largest man-made sources of greenhouse gasses, researchers warn that too much recycling can have a negative effect on society due to the high costs associated with transporting and processing recyclable goods, and manufacturing with recycled material.

In a new study examining government-mandated recycling programs in developed countries like Japan, researchers found that the socially optimal recycling rate is actually closer to 10 percent of all disposed goods – a figure much lower than the current rate of 19 percent and 34 percent currently practiced in Japan and the United States, respectively.

The authors of that particular study, published in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, list several reasons for why this may be the case, chief among them the costs of managing recycling plants and manufacturing goods with recycled materials. In other words, the environmental benefits achieved through participating in nationally-imposed recycling programs may be outweighed by the cost required to run them.

As John Tierney writes in The New York Times, “Despite decades of exhortations and mandates, it’s still typically more expensive for municipalities to recycle household waste than to send it to a landfill.”

Looking at the environmental and economic costs of recycling, Mr. Tierney argues that while it may make economic sense to recycle paper and some metals, there is a much more limited benefit to recycling plastics and yard waste.

The cost of transporting goods for recycling to landfills can also offset the environmental benefits recycling is thought to achieve: in New York City, for instance, it cost approximately $300, on average, for the city to process and then dispose of one ton of recyclable goods, according to figures from 2004.

Bucknell University economics professor Thomas Kinnaman recommends a targeted recycling program, one that would focus chiefly on those goods that wreak the most environmental havoc to produce from scratch, like plastic, paper, and some metals. They also recommend taking the additional step of reducing our collective consumption, and reusing where we can.

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One possible solution, according to Tierney, is a tax on trash disposed of at landfills, which municipalities could use to offset environmental costs in the most fiscally responsible way. For now, thanks to wide support among voters and special interests, politicians like New York Mayor Bill de Blasio will likely continue to push recycling further. According to the mayor, New York City will be "garbage free" by 2030, thanks in large part to an unprecedented increase in recycling.