What you think about landfill and recycling is probably totally wrong

What you think about landfill and recycling is probably totally wrong

The land and sea pollution is mostly caused by bad trash collection practices

Almost all of the trash that escapes into nature, especially the sea, is caused by a bad trash collection practices. This often happens on fishing ships (they regularly dump or lose fishing nets which end up forming a decent fraction of all ocean pollution) or in poorer riverine countries with low standards of trash collection such as China, India, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Rich countries like the UK or US have rubbish collection rates approaching 100%.

Recycling is sometimes worse for the environment than landfill

Recycling is only sometimes better for the environment or cheaper than landfill. Depends on the item ... By the time someone has picked up that plastic container of peanut butter, driven it to a recycling facility, separated it into its plastic type, taken off the lid, fully washed it out in hot water, and melted it down in a specialized facility, we might have used less energy and produced less pollution just to make a new one from scratch.

Because of these realities ... — lids on containers, food still inside them, or paper not being dry— lots of materials that are collected for recycling are nevertheless never actually recycled and have to be sent to landfill. Lots of materials that are collected for recycling are never actually recycled and have to be sent to landfill. This is increasingly the case as developing countries start refusing to use their low cost of labour to do the dirty work of figuring out what to do with our recycling.

We still have a lot space for landfill and it can be safely run

We aren’t anywhere near running out of space for landfill. The Earth is huge and we are good at digging deep holes ...

More on landfill

A badly run landfill site will let items blow away, or toxic fluids leach into the surrounding environment. But a well run landfill site has a thick, puncture-resistant plastic lining, drainage for fluids, electricity generation from gases produced by decaying matter, active monitoring to avoid water contamination, and more. Once it’s full, it’s covered over by a thick layer of soil, you can’t even tell it was ever a landfill site, and people can farm on it.

We should recycle all metals and not necessarily all plastic

  • Metal
    • Metals are hard to mine and easy to recycle, so they should never go to landfill.
  • Plastic
    • Plastics are cheap to make and often a pain to recycle — you have to separate into many different categories, and clean them — so it’s sometimes best to just send them to landfill.
    • Reusable straws and bags are often more resource intensive than single-use ones.
    • The same goes with plastic bags

      The below image shows the number of times a given grocery bag type would have to be reused to have as low greenhouse gas emission as a standard single-use plastic bag (LDPE, low-density polyethylene) i.e. organic cotton 20k reuses! From a great overview on plastics by Our World in Data

      image
      Some plastic in some circumstances is worth to recycle

      for some kinds of plastic in some places recycling is indeed the better option, even if the net gain isn’t that huge. Analysing the total life-cycle cost of recycling vs making new items is very complicated and depends on the specific context.

Paper and cardboard

Some sources are also enthusiastic about the merits of clean paper and cardboard recycling. A common theme seems to be that recycling of materials at the factory or industrial level is very often justified, because you can collect large quantities at a consistent quality, at very low cost