Trying to encourage conservation, progressive lawmakers and environmentalists have made matters worse. By pushing to increase recycling rates with bigger and bigger bins — while demanding almost no sorting by consumers — the recycling stream has become increasingly polluted and less valuable, imperiling the economics of the whole system. . . .And the mechanical sorting done in such plants does work to a considerable extent. But it doesn't work perfectly, so the products that come out are contaminated and therefore of lower value than pure paper or aluminum would be. Glass is a particular problem:
Many of the problems facing the industry can be traced to the curbside blue bin — and the old saying that if it sounds too good to be true, it just might be. Anyone who has ever tossed a can into a bin knows what’s supposed to happen: Anything recyclable can go in, and then somehow, magically, it’s all separated and reused.
The idea originated in California in the 1990s. Environmental advocates believed that the only way to increase participation in recycling programs was to make it easier. Sorting took time and was messy. No one liked it. So-called Material Recovery Facilities, or MRFs, were created to do what consumers wouldn’t.
From the start, it was hard to argue that glass should have been allowed in the curbside mix. It’s the heaviest of recyclables but has always been of marginal value as a commodity. In the rough-and-tumble sorting facilities, a large share of it breaks and contaminates valuable bales of paper, plastic and other materials. Today, more than a third of all glass sent to recycling facilities ends up crushed. It is trucked to landfills as daily cover to bury the smell and trap gases. The rest has almost no value to recyclers and can often cost them to haul away.For some products, especially cardboard and aluminum, recycling saves so much energy that it is always a good idea. For others, such as steel and paper, it saves enough to be worth doing most of the time. But for others, especially plastic and glass, there just isn't much environmental value to recycling. I have always been dubious of the "recycle everything" approach, because burying some things in landfills isn't really so bad, especially when you consider the energy used trucking all that heavy glass around the country. I would rather see us focus on recycling the things that are worth recycling, and raising the value of the stream by having people sort it themselves. But I guess that would go against the value of getting everyone involved in recycling, so maybe in the very long run the current approach is better. It costs a lot, though, and it is not getting cheaper.