Wash your Trash! Is recycling working?

By Andy May

The recycling movement started in the 1970s and it has been very popular in Western countries. Participation varies with location, but in our small community of The Woodlands, Texas, over 90% participate in our curbside recycling program. However, the value of recycled materials has fallen dramatically in recent years because far too much unrecyclable material is put in the bins by the public and much of what is recyclable is contaminated with water, food, or other contaminates that make the “good” stuff unusable. Waste disposal companies often charge “contamination fees.” In addition to the contamination problem, the value of recyclables is going down and cost to process them into a usable form is going up. Processing, that is cleaning and sorting a load of recyclable material, has gone from earning a community $25/ton to costing the community $70/ton or more in many areas. In 2015 recycling was a revenue generator for Houston and other cities in the area. Bellaire, for example, generated $12,000 in 2015 from curbside recycling, but in 2017, they lost over $80,000 for the same program.

Paper and metals, especially aluminum, are the easiest and most valuable materials to recycle, but if they are stained with food or left-over beer or soda, they are rejected and wind up in the landfill anyway. Wet paper, even wet with water, often cannot be recycled. Paper stained with food cannot be recycled, this includes pizza boxes and juice boxes. For more details about what can be recycled and how the materials should be washed and prepared for recycling, see here. Be aware that recycling rules vary from place-to-place and that those I mention here may be different from those in your area. Follow your local rules. This lack of uniformity is confusing.

Glass is still recycled in some areas, but most reject all glass currently because non-recyclable glass items and dirty bottles are too commonly placed in the bins. Basically, any clean glass bottle or jar, intact, with a neck and lid can be recycled. But it must be clean and without any food contamination or it will be rejected, and the contents may contaminate other perfectly recyclable materials in the bin. This is also true of plastic bottles, tubs and jars, they must be very clean and have caps or lids. Only rigid plastic containers can be recycled, no film, no plastic bags and no scrap plastic. Yogurt, ice cream containers, etc. cannot be recycled, in fact all plastic covered paper and cardboard cannot be recycled. Milk bottles can be recycled, but they must be clean and still have the cap on them.

Some contamination in recycling bins is to be expected, but recycling companies and cities are severely penalized if more than 25% of the recycled materials are contaminated with food waste, water or other contaminants. This raises the cost of recycling dramatically and often causes communities to abandon recycling altogether.

China used to buy up to 70% of the world’s waste plastic, but they stopped taking it and this has caused the cost of recycling to go up dramatically. China stopped taking our recyclables because they were contaminated with “highly polluting” materials that were fouling their land, rivers and coasts. Even Vietnam, Malaysia, and some countries in Africa are limiting their imports of recyclables. They would welcome cleaner recyclables, but the contaminated portion of the loads wind up in local rivers and in the ocean, where they are not only unsightly, but they affect the fish and can causes disease.

So, what do we do with the 267 million U.S. tons of trash we generate each year? In 2017, the EPA estimates it was ultimately disposed of as shown in Figure 1. Notice that only 25% was recycled, this is after the contaminated garbage and unrecyclable materials were removed. Dry clean paper was 66% of the total and metals, like clean aluminum cans were 12%. Notice that plastic and glass are a very small fraction, although they provide most of the contamination. If you want to help the environment only put very clean, rigid plastic bottles, with their caps on, in the recycle bin. Glass must also be very clean, intact and have a lid.

Figure 1. U.S. waste and the destinations. Data from the EPA.

Roughly ten percent of our recycling, in the U.S.A., is composted. Most of this is yard and farm waste, the rest is mostly discarded food. Thirteen percent of the waste is incinerated in large industrial incinerators that recover some energy by generating electricity.


As the quality of recycled materials has decreased, causing recycling costs to increase, incineration has become more popular worldwide. When western countries began exporting their trash, total world pollution did not decrease, it just moved to Africa and southeast Asia. It is no wonder that these areas rebelled. As noted above, for metal, plastic or glass to be recycled it must be intact and clean, when processed, whether in a foreign country or at home, huge amounts of water are required, this creates a lot of waste water that must be processed before it is discharged. It is this polluted wastewater that China objected to most, the recycling communities did not always process the wastewater prior to discharging it to the ocean or a river.

As explained by Mikko Paunio, in his GWPF report, Saving the Oceans, and the plastic recycling crisis, plastic, and most other so-called “recyclables” are not truly recyclable. For these materials, incineration is best according to Paunio (see pages 2-4 of the cited report). It is safer because it does not require the waste to be sorted and better for the environment because there is no wastewater from washing the trash. Modern incinerators generate electricity and collect the fly ash from incineration in bag houses, so it doesn’t enter the atmosphere and can be disposed of properly. The bottom ash, the ash that does not become airborne, can be processed to extract valuable metals. The process reduces the volume of trash to about 15%-20% of the original, it also kills harmful bacteria and reduces many pollutants to safe component molecules. Harmful air pollutant chemicals, like mercury, SO2 or carbon monoxide, can be trapped or converted into safe compounds in pollution control equipment and made harmless, just as they are in modern coal-fired power plants.

Once the ash is processed for valuable metals, it is taken to a landfill for disposal, but occupies only one-fifth or less of the space it would have occupied before it was incinerated, and the ash is safer for the environment. Some misguided politicians have crippled waste incineration with costly regulatory demands, to the detriment of their countries. The most egregious example was in Italy in 2000. They prohibited (in effect, through regulations) incineration of trash and as a result their landfills quickly filled up. That meant local trash haulers had to stop collecting trash and the only option was to burn it in the open air without pollution control equipment and the Campania region became heavily polluted with dioxins (Paunio, GWPF Note 16 2019, page 3). When considering incineration of waste, it is important to consider the alternatives and their effects.

Plastic in the Oceans

According to Paunio (Paunio, GWPF Briefing 32 2018) the problem of plastic pollution in the oceans is mainly due to plastic from China and southeast Asia. However, much of the plastic dumped in the ocean in Asia, originally came from the United States and Europe and was simply shipped to China and southeast Asia as “recyclable.” Only a fraction of the plastic disposed of in western countries and shipped to Asia could be recycled, the rest wound up in rivers and in the ocean. This was not the reason that Asia stopped receiving the plastic waste, however, the reason they stopped all or most of the shipments was the water pollution created by cleaning the trash that was already supposed to be clean.

Paunio calls the plastic pollution in the oceans a crisis, but he does not offer any evidence, he simply assumes the plastic in the oceans is a crisis. His focus is on alternatives to recycling plastic, as the recycling is not working. For a discussion of the ocean pollution problem itself, we turn to another report, the Analysis of Greenpeace’s business model and philosophy, by an international team of researchers (Connolly, et al. 2018, page 29). A tiny amount of microplastic fragments are present in most ocean basins.

For most of the oceans, the concentrations of microplastics are negligible and almost undetectable. In a few “ocean gyres” collections of plastic waste fragments are found in higher concentrations, perhaps up to a few hundred tiny fragments per square mile. Figure 2 shows all the fragments collected from one pass of a trawler through the heart of one of the so-called “Oceanic Garbage Patches,” in the South Atlantic Gyre.

Figure 2. All the plastic fragments collected in a pass, with a fine mesh net, through the South Atlantic gyre “Garbage Patch.” The largest fragment is less than 1.5 cm. across. They found 110 pieces in a 0.5-mile pass. All 110 pieces would not fill a thimble. (Connolly, et al. 2018, page 33).

Studies suggest that larger, more visible plastic bottles, nets, ropes etc. are from fishing boats. The microplastic is mostly from developing nations, especially Asian nations. The largest contributors to ocean plastics are China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, and Vietnam. Until the recent changes took effect, these countries were also the largest importers of recyclable plastics. As we can see the samples collected from the “Great Ocean Garbage Patches” do not support the media hyperbole.


While the idea of recycling is attractive, it has not been effective, nor has it helped the environment. If everyone were extremely careful about what they put in their recycle bins, washed it carefully, replaced the lids on jars and bottles, kept the paper that they recycled dry and clean, it might help. But, this is unrealistic, people will throw half-drunk sodas and beers into the bins, along with wet newspapers, soiled aluminum foil and plastic; then the mess must be sorted out, cleaned and most of it will go into the regular trash anyway. A common complaint among the recycling public is, “Why should I wash my trash?” The simplest answer is, “If you don’t it will not be recycled.”

The reason developing nations will not accept our recyclables anymore, is that they are dirty, and it takes too much water to clean them. The resulting wastewater, from cleaning the recyclables, is dangerously polluted and too expensive to prepare for discharge. Worse, in some countries the water used to clean the recyclables is not processed at all and discharged directly into rivers or the ocean with all the contaminants still in it. This fouls the rivers and oceans, endangers the fish and public health.

Greenpeace and other environmental organizations are spreading nonsense about the supposed “ocean garbage patches,” when they are not a problem at all. Not to the fish, China, southeast Asia or the U.S., Japan and Europe. The problem is the wastewater created when we clean our trash or export it to other countries that must clean it. Even after cleaning, a lot of the plastic and glass cannot be recycled as it is the wrong kind. Recycling just is not working well.

Incineration is a far better solution. No sorting or wasteful cleaning is required, all trash can be burned safely in a very environmentally friendly way in modern incinerators equipped with proper pollution control equipment (Paunio, GWPF Briefing 32 2018, page 4).


Connolly, Michael, Ronan Connolly, Willie Soon, Patrick Moore, and Imelda Connolly. 2018. “Analysis of Greenpeace’s business model and philosophy, Greenpeace wants a piece of your green.” https://www.academia.edu/38956524/Analysis_of_Greenpeaces_business_model_and_philosophy.

Paunio, Mikko. 2018. Save the Oceans, Stop recycling plastic. GWPF, The Global Warming Foundation. https://www.thegwpf.org/content/uploads/2018/06/Save-the-oceans.pdf.

Paunio, Mikko. 2019. Saving the Oceans, and the plastic recycling crisis. GWPF, Global Warming Policy Foundation. https://www.thegwpf.org/content/uploads/2019/05/Paunio-Baselagreement.pdf.

A Weeco plastic recycling factory employee sorts plastic bottles in Nairobi, Kenya. Picture taken May 15, 2019 by Baz Ratner of Reuters.

Published by Andy May

Petrophysicist, details available here: https://andymaypetrophysicist.com/about/

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