“People just really want a way out of their consumption that doesn’t make them feel bad,” he said.
But recycling does ultimately play a role in emissions reduction, and in recent years the industry, too, has leaned into its clear climate benefits.
“Landfills create methane, a serious climate bad actor, and the less that goes into the landfill, the better,” Keefe Harrison, the CEO of The Recycling Partnership (TRP), told me. “From a system point of view, recycling protects the climate by keeping natural habitats in place, limiting the need for carbon-intensive harvesting of virgin natural resources.”
A national nonprofit, TRP focuses on building public-private partnerships to boost recycling, powered by a group of funders, including Coca-Cola, the American Chemistry Council, and Burt’s Bees. Like others in the space, TRP’s message often centers on “circularity” and the idea of an economy that operates in a renewing cycle rather than on a linear path that culminates in disposal.
Climate change is a key part of that message. Since its beginning in 2014, Harrison said, TRP’s work has helped prevent the emission of about 251,000 metric tons of carbon emissions, in addition to diverting more than 230 million tons of recyclables from landfills. And the group thinks that more emissions reductions are possible: In a 2020 report, TRP found that only about half of Americans have access to curbside pickup, and that many who do have access don’t fully participate.
That has led to the inverse of wish-cycling—items are being thrown away that could be recycled. Curbside recycling currently recovers only about 32 percent of what is available in single-family homes, according to TRP. If the remainder were recycled each year, based on calculations through the EPA’s Waste Reduction Model, which determines emissions savings stemming from waste-management practices, TRP has found that “would also reduce U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions by 96 million metric tons of carbon-dioxide equivalent,” Harrison said.
Although industry forces see recycling as a key climate tool, others are more skeptical, including Jan Dell, a chemical engineer and founder of the Last Beach Cleanup. The chief focus of her criticism is a common one: plastics.
“Companies actively use recycling as a distraction and an excuse,” Dell told me. She sees many corporate recycling pledges as a means of evading actual climate action.
Environmental advocates maintain that plastics are largely single-use: A 2020 Greenpeace USA survey found that plastics with resin codes #3–7 are virtually impossible to recycle, because of limited facility processing capabilities and insufficient market demand. Lawsuits are currently ongoing against Walmart and Keurig Green Mountain, arguing that those companies have violated Federal Trade Commission guidance by presenting plastic items as recyclable. The corporate giants have defended themselves against the allegations and emphasized their commitment to sustainability. (Walmart said in a statement that the company is “a strong advocate for the environment” and recycling, while Keurig has maintained in court that its labels advise consumers to “check locally” regarding recycling options.)