Proponents of material recycling typically point to two environmental benefits: disposal (landfill/incinerator) reduction and primary production displacement. However, in this paper we mathematically demonstrate that, without displacement, recycling can delay but not prevent any existing end-of-life material from reaching final disposal. The only way to reduce the amount of material ultimately landfilled or incinerated is to produce less in the first place; material that is not made needs not be disposed. Recycling has the potential to reduce the amount of material reaching end of life solely by reducing primary production. Therefore, the “dual benefits” of recycling are in fact one, and the environmental benefit of material recycling rests in its potential to displace primary production. However, displacement of primary production from increased recycling is driven by market forces and is not guaranteed. Improperly assuming all recycled material avoids disposal underestimates the environmental impacts of the product system. We show that the potential magnitude of this error is substantial, though for inert recyclables it is lower than the error introduced by improperly assuming all recycled material displaces primary material production. We argue that life cycle assessment end-of-life models need to be updated so as not to overstate the benefits of recycling. Furthermore, scholars and policy makers should focus on finding and implementing ways to increase the displacement potential of recyclable materials rather than focusing on disposal diversion targets.
Zink, Trevor & Geyer, Roland. (2018). Material Recycling and the Myth of Landfill Diversion. Journal of Industrial Ecology. 23.