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 has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

7 responses

  1. Leon,

    The challenge with SRI’s thinking is that it is too short sighted. Recycling is not just about carbon footprint it is about the raw materials used in creating the virgin material (petroleum in most cases)and reusing resources efficiently.

    If we use carbon as the be all end all equation as to the impact on the environment then we must all agree that the gulf oil spill is not an environmental disaster – because the carbon footprint for the spill is negligible.

    There is more sustainability then just carbon footprints. I just wrote an article for another site about the challenges in just measuring carbon.

    You are right, there is never a 100% right answer!

    Great article,

  2. So I’m unclear- The goal is still to establish adequate capacity to recycle? But until your community has the capacity to reprocess above the 50% diversion rate, the landfill is the most sustainable option in countries with sufficient space? How much does proximity to the landfill factor in for municipalities with regular old diesel garbage trucks? And what about environmental concerns besides carbon footprint?

  3. Pingback: Landfills: A Viable Alternative to Recycling? – Triple Pundit | Alternative Practice
  4. I am not convinced. While i will like to believ what SRI is saying, I think the better approach will be to have a long term plan of investing in recycling plants than having a short sighted view of filling out the landfills as they may be lower or comparable and more cost effective. There is no easy answer, but we have to pick the ones that are viable in the long term. When we are going to make investments any ways, it should be in a longer term future.

  5. A problem with conservative LCA’s/Carbon footprint analyses is what they leave out. Derrick alludes to this above.

    An analysis of the long term sustainability of any particular subject would almost certainly come to different conclusions to policies based on simple LCA’s.

    Leon – liked the side swipe at Amsterdam’s incineration policy!

  6. Thanks for the article – I think the comments made here are much more on target than the SRI study (or what I know of it from your article).

    Couple of thoughts:
    1) I am not a big fan of incineration, but I have heard it well argued that waste to energy does have a positive net effect vs. mining more and more dirty coal for energy production. If SRI has found proof to the opposite, I would love to read the fine print.

    2) This is the same argument for why we should keep drilling oil and mining coal instead of investing in new, cleaner technologies. It’s all a “chicken or the egg” problem. If we don’t invest in infrastructure nothing ever changes. They can make an argument that it is more efficient in the short term b/c of existing infrastructure. But long term, we are digging ourselves an ever deeper hole (and I don’t just mean the landfill).

    3) Derrick is right on. It’s about the resources that are being wasted. I just heard a very impassioned speech from former Shell CEO John Hoffmeister shouting from the rooftops that we will hit an “oil abyss” and essentially run into massive constraints of supply if we don’t seriously fix our energy policies. Part of those policy discussions really should extend to the LCA and end of life of refined and processed oil products like plastics. It’s unconscionable to pay out the nose for foreign oil so that we can produce more soda bottles to package up products that make our population fat and unhealthy.

    Sometimes you just have to pull your nose out of the data (or stop following your GPS word for word) and look at the big picture. This isn’t that hard to figure out.

    @BrookeBF from @RecycleMatch

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