Circular File: Out of Sight, Out of Mind

When assessing recycling's environmental impact, why do we overlook China?

Recycling is good for the environment, isn't it? Countless studies have clearly shown that recycling reduces air and water pollution, conserves natural resources and saves energy. At least, it does when the recyclables stay in this country.

But I wonder; when we send our recyclables overseas, particularly to China, are we doing the environment any favors? I'm not talking about the environmental cost of shipping our recyclables. Those vessels would consume energy and produce pollution regardless of whether they were sailing back to China empty or if they were full of American made products (unfortunately, they are far more likely to be full of discarded products than new ones).

No, I'm talking about what happens when our recyclables are taken off those ships and transported to Chinese factories to be made into new products. I'm concerned about the diesel exhaust from those trucks and the emissions from power plants, emissions that have such a broad reach that they become part of the smog in Los Angeles. If you don't believe me, just read studies published by the environmental group, Greenpeace, along with the magazines Scientific American and Foreign Policy. They have detailed the extent of pollution in China and its impact on public health in that country and beyond.

This problem gets worse as governments around the world look toward the upcoming climate change convention in Copenhagen, Denmark. The Chinese government continues to insist that the United States and Western Europe lower their greenhouse gas emissions, even as it argues that China, currently the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, should not be forced to lower those emissions. They want to keep on polluting in order to raise their standard of living. In other words, “smoke means progress,” and dirty air means more of the good things in life.

We need to be more honest about the environmental and energy impacts of exporting our recyclables to other countries. More than half of recovered PET bottles, a quarter of recovered paper and a significant amount of scrap metals are exported for recycling. China is the biggest recipient. Only aluminum cans, glass bottles and food and yard waste stay in this country for recycling or composting.

EPA isn't helping. That agency's Waste Reduction Model (WARM) and its life cycle assessment of solid waste management and greenhouse gases gives a very good accounting of recycling's benefits in this country. Unfortunately, EPA treats what happens elsewhere with benign neglect. The agency concedes that its calculations are based on U.S. conditions and that “greenhouse gas emissions associated with the manufacture of a material in China may be higher” than in this country. However, that little caveat is buried on one page in the assessment and then forgotten.

We can do better. EPA should be more forthcoming about the limitations of its environmental data. Every table and chart regarding the environmental impact of recycling a product should include a disclaimer that the data only applies to American facilities and does not account for the percentage of that product that is exported. Policy makers, recycling advocates and consultants need to be honest about the different environmental impact when our recyclables go to China and elsewhere.

After all, if recycling is going to save the world, shouldn't we save all of it?

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Chaz Miller is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at