My city, like many, has a recycling program, which I believe is supposed to reduce pollution and create some positive economic activity. But I've heard many people argue that recycling programs are a waste in and of themselves. Essentially that most recycling programs are having the opposite effect than they were intended to have. Not only are they bad for the economy, they are also bad for the environment.

Recycling on Conservapedia contends:

Critics dispute the net economic and environmental benefits of recycling over its costs, and suggest that proponents of recycling often make matters worse and suffer from confirmation bias. Specifically, critics argue that the costs and energy used in collection and transportation detract from (and outweigh) the costs and energy saved in the production process;

Are critics of recycling correct?

Do recycling programs usually have a net negative effect on the environment and the economy?

  • 10
    I am actually banned from Conservapedia and don't know why!
    – Sklivvz
    Apr 8, 2011 at 22:41
  • 3
    Not Mark, apparently :-)
    – Sklivvz
    Apr 8, 2011 at 23:29
  • 5
    it depends whats being recycled. Recycling paper is,imho, not worth the effort. we farm trees for paper. recycling gold or copper is probably a net gain. Apr 9, 2011 at 5:58
  • 3
    There's another concern that doesn't seem to be addressed here: the space occupied by landfills with otherwise recyclable materials. Though paper may be more cost effective to downcycle, isn't there also a benefit from keeping unnecessary materials from entering landfills?
    – JYelton
    Apr 15, 2011 at 20:43
  • 2
    @WitnessProtectionID44583292 not to mention that it costs money to cart off the recyclables either way (in the trash truck or the recycle truck); it might be more efficient to carry them on the same truck but only in certain situations depending on the distribution of trash/recyclables across a route.
    – Michael
    Jun 3, 2014 at 16:12

2 Answers 2


According to Popular Mechanics, who I assume probably did their homework, it's worthwhile recycling newspaper and a couple of types of plastic in addition to aluminum (that aluminum recycling is wise should be utterly uncontroversial--aluminum refining is amazing, but not a low-energy process!). There was an article in the Economist a few years ago that also supports the idea that recycling (at least of most things) is a net win (it also adds steel to the "good idea" category). Even if you assume that not all factors have been taken into account (e.g. carbon produced by people working at the recycling plant who otherwise could do something else productive), the fraction of energy saved and large amounts of CO2 saved strongly suggest that recycling is a net positive.

Whether any individual recycling program is worthwhile is harder to judge, but see the article in The Economist for a suggestion of an affirmative answer (actually, an answer of "usually", 83% net positive).

  • 2
    Right, and we have to remember that the purpose of recycling is to conserve resources, not to save energy even though sometimes it does. Feb 9, 2012 at 19:41
  • 3
    @GabrielFair - Energy and resources are pretty interconvertible in most cases. Some things are sufficiently rare (copper, lithium, gold, etc.) that this is not true, but for the most part you can get more of whichever resource you want as long as you have enough energy (certainly true for glass, steel, aluminum, plastic; paper is a little bit tighter in supply but not that much).
    – Rex Kerr
    Feb 9, 2012 at 19:45
  • 1
    @jwenting - Fair enough; I was assuming we'd gotten SO2 under control now. Maybe that's not true in developing countries. Variations in solar input are small compared to forcing via greenhouse gases: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:NASAdata1979to2009.jpg for example. Looking at one factor alone is indeed unwise. I agreed with you there already.
    – Rex Kerr
    Oct 11, 2012 at 14:39
  • 1
    @fgysin - Oil is just a particular mix of long-chain hydrocarbons, which can be created (given adequate energy) from e.g. plants. Also, there are bioplastics that achieve similar properties with different starting material: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bioplastic
    – Rex Kerr
    Oct 11, 2012 at 14:46
  • 2
    @jwenting - You have posted sources (here in this comment thread after my query) many times, yet they have been removed before I saw them, and somehow I only got one comment notification? Let's try again: source?
    – Rex Kerr
    Oct 12, 2012 at 15:46

Aluminum recycling is an enormous net win, because a used aluminum can is very nearly the same thing as the output of an aluminum smelter, which consumes huge amounts of irreplaceable fossil fuels. Plastic and paper are not typically recycled at all - they are downcycled into coarser forms.

The best kind of recycling is when the original user of the product finds multiple uses for a product before disposing of it. For example, a glass pickle jar can be washed and reused for food storage practically indefinitely. This is a big win over recycling the glass and buying a brand-new plastic food container.

It is also a big win to rescue useful items that other people would have thrown away. Used appliances and food containers from yard sales are cheap and often perfectly functional.

  • 2
    This is the reason I like glass. Except companies in UK seem to want to melt perfectly usable glass bottles or jars and remake them into new glass bottles! Utter madness. Apr 14, 2011 at 16:51
  • 12
    This answer is not properly referenced. Please add citations to support your claims! :-)
    – Sklivvz
    Apr 27, 2011 at 15:50
  • 6
    Follow these steps in this order: Reduce, reuse, recycle. Jun 5, 2011 at 4:28
  • 1
    @ScottMitchell you forgot the last one: Rethink Feb 9, 2012 at 19:40
  • 1
    [Citation needed.] Apr 17, 2017 at 18:35

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .