Landfills: A Viable Alternative to Recycling?

It has become a pet belief that recycling PET bottles is a better alternative than shipping them off to the nearest landfill.  Since just about everything in liquid form comes in a PET bottle, municipalities have adopted the standard practice of recycling those containers.  Chances are a city you are visiting in East Asia, North America, or Europe has a recycling system in place.

Could the story be different in regions that lack a recycling infrastructure?  What about developing countries?  According to a recent report that SRI Consulting released, countries that have plenty of space but little or no recycling infrastructure should not fret:  SRI’s study suggests that disposing such bottles in landfill results in a lower carbon footprint than recycling or incineration.

SRI’s work has found that curb-side collection diverts about 50% of PET bottles from the landfill.  Community programs that include plastic bottle take-back, mandated garbage separation, or bottle deposits have a higher diversion rate.  But for areas lacking the capacity to recycle, sending PET bottles to the landfill may be the best option.  As Mike Arné, Assistant Director of the consultancy’s Carbon Footprint Initiative stated:

The key to this is not in raising collection rates, but in improving yields, especially in sorting and to a lesser extent in reprocessing. For countries without a recycling infrastructure, the best choice may well be to landfill bottles.

SRI Consulting’s study, Plastic-Bottle Recycling: Not Always Lowest-Carbon Option,  suggests:

  • Incineration creates the highest carbon footprint when it comes to the disposal of PET bottles.  Even if the resulting energy from incineration generates power and heat, the net affect is still heat positive.  Are you listening, Amsterdam?
  • Shipping recyclables long distances to countries like China leaves a small carbon footprint, countering the assumptions of sustainability experts who frown on the shipping of baled PET bottles across the Pacific.
  • Recycled bottles have a lower carbon footprint than virgin PET, so manufacturers that churn products like straps, films, and fabric out of recycled PET should be able to claim that their goods are lower-carbon than those made from new PET.

 

Developing nations that struggle with trash disposal often send local officials to either incinerating plants like those in Amsterdam, or to cities that have innovative recycling programs.  But according to the SRI study, the best option for now would be to just have adequate landfill space—the key is if a region has the room.

Convinced?  As with the case of many sustainability-related issues, there is never a 100% right answer.  Plastic bags take up less space in landfills than those made from paper.  Organic food has its virtues, but some find it absurd to ship it from another continent.  Then there begs the question, how does all that trash get into the Pacific, Atlantic, and now the Indian ocean garbage patches?

SRI’s background may stop some readers in its tracks.  After all, it describes itself as “the world’s leading business research service for the global chemical industry” and its experts are well-versed in “petrochemicals, polymers, specialty and fine chemicals, agricultural chemicals, and inorganics.”  Clients include the Fortune Global 100, leaders in the financial and chemical sectors, and government agencies.  The firm has published studies like this most recent one for over sixty years, and are available by subscription or purchase.

Remember, SRI is not advocating for cities to eliminate recycling bins.  So is this a groundbreaking study, or is there some other agenda?

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is a business writer and strategic communications specialist. He has also been featured in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. When he has time, he shares his thoughts on his own site, GreenGoPost.com. Contact him at leon@greengopost.com. You can also reach out via Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost). He is currently living and working in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.