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I hear a lot of rhetoric around "infrastructure" lately. The US Congress is debating bills that will cost trillions of USD. The elements that we usually think of are there: roads, schools, public utilities. Communication has become popular under the term "broadband", but really communication in the forms of telephone, radio, tv, ... have always been considered part of infrastructure.

So why have I not heard any talk about recycling as a part of public infrastructure. If nothing else, it should fall neatly into the category of public utilities, but still, it seems to be ignored, even with global climate change being taken seriously. I admit that I have not read the Congressional bills that probably run into the thousands of pages. But, I have not heard much public discussion of recycling being part of public infrastructure.

Wouldn't this be a good opportunity to raise public awareness on the heals of global climate change and investment in infrastructure?

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    most recycling is actually carbon-positive, except Al cans. It can be nice for forests or reducing landfill, but it's not a good (cost-effective) way to reduce carbon.
    – dandavis
    Aug 26 at 5:26
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    The drive to recycle more is about reducing pollution in landfill and oceans (and hopefully reducing demand for raw resources, whose extraction also damages natural environments). But recycling has very little to do with climate change. Humans do MANY things that are "bad for the environment". Dumping waste carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is just one of them; not everything you can do that is "good for the environment" is helpful or relevant to reducing climate change. Actions to raise public awareness of climate change should do that; recycling is a distraction if that's your goal.
    – Ben
    Aug 27 at 7:14
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(I get to leverage my experience working in the MSW (Municipal Solid Waste) sector as a recycling educator here, neat!)

First off, we have to acknowledge that "recycling" is an extremely broad umbrella - at least as broad as the term 'infrastructure,' and just as fraught with political motivations for labeling something as being under the umbrella. Consider, the chasing-arrow logo with the numbers inside, manufacturers fight tooth and nail to earn the legal right to put those on their products, whether or not the product itself is even remotely recyclable with current technology.

You say:

If nothing else, it should fall neatly into the category of public utilities...

But it's fall therein is anything but neat.

Consider the end-of-life phase of a consumer product's lifespan, assuming it is a conventionally recyclable item, we'll go with a soda bottle.

  1. The consumer puts the item in a curbside recycling bin (The bin is produced by a private company, and sometimes distributed by a private company as well).
  2. A truck comes by to pick it up. (The truck is owned by a private contractor, almost always - in the US anyway - a large, for-profit, solid waste company.)
  3. The material is brought to a sorting facility, the most modern of which are automated beasts called Material Reclamation Facilities (MRFs). (These are also privately owned, for-profit enterprises.)
  4. The bottle goes through a series of sorts and filters until it is finally deposited in a large bunker with other bottles made of the same material. It is compressed and strapped into a bale (yes, bale, like with hay). It is now a small part of a larger unit of commodity good which will be sold to a buyer (the buyer is a private, for-profit company).
  5. The bottle will be shredded, the resulting cullet will be chemically washed several times, and the cullet will then be melted and re-injection molded into a new bottle if the cullet was of good quality, but more likely into some lower grade resin-based product like a flower pot. This product will now be trucked out and sold as any other consumer product. (This is all done by for-profit manufacturers.)

As you can see, at no stage of it's path is it being handled by anything that one can readily consider a public utility. The 'public infrastructure' that is being interacted with here are roads and sometimes railways.

All of this comes from the fact that, in the United States, recycling is viewed as the responsibility of the consumer primarily, and the producer secondarily, not the government's problem. Is this how it should be? Not if we want to see meaningful recycling rates (as it stands, warehouses full of bales of low-grade plastic waste and other 'recyclables' are going unbought because consumers don't know how to differentiate between recyclate and contaminant), but it's what we've got.

Private enterprise is almost definitionally not 'public infrastructure.' What recycling does happen in the United States is a form of value extraction from what would otherwise be waste streams. It's driven by the fact that solid waste disposal is also a private, for-profit affair. There it's more frequently viewed as a municipal service but the 'infrastructure' part of it is just roads and bridges again. The market prices for disposal services is part of the value proposition for recycling.

tl;dr - Recycling in the United States is an entirely private-sector, for-profit affair, rather than a publicly provided-for system.

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    Step 5 was usually done in China, since it's quite polluting (if done cheaply). But then the Chinese decided to say "enough" triggering a crisis in the US. news.climate.columbia.edu/2020/03/13/fix-recycling-america Per that souce, since then the industry/step moved to Cambodia, Bangladesh, Ghana, Laos, Ethiopia, Kenya and Senegal where the labor is even cheaper and environmental standards even more lax. Little surprise few are talking about bringing such industry to the US...
    – Fizz
    Aug 25 at 15:56
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    Not for plastic bottles, but for a lot of other things, yeah. When I was in the 'biz, we'd send our mixed plastics to this place in Pennsylvania for processing. Mexico gets a lot of e-waste for this same reason, too. I actually left the business when the Five Dragons stopped buying mixed paper and the market flipped on its head. Aug 25 at 16:09
  • An industry needs to be publicly owned to be considered part of the public infrastructure; it merely needs to serve the public. The electric power grid has always been considered infrastructure, as was wired telephone (pre-cell.) Clearly the president considers access to the internet part of infrastructure because he keeps saying "broadband." My feeling is that recycling is part of the public infrastructure. And, it's especially relevant today in light of global warming. I understand why the president doesn't mention it: Americans don't like recycling, so it's not a good move politically.
    – Supa Nova
    Aug 25 at 20:50
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    @SupaNova Powerlines don't get Federal funding in the name of 'infrastructure,' though. They get funded privately. Making "broadband" part of infrastructure is a political novelty here, and one worthy of note - but just because this president keeps saying it doesn't mean it's historically been the case. Aug 26 at 2:37
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    @Barmar Sometimes the City will provide trash service directly, but this is not as common as you might think. A lot of DPWs will contract that work out, and the companies (like the one I worked for) that do business in recycled commodities clamour for those contracts because if you control the trash, you control the recycled commodities (as you note). So cities and towns will essentially get subsidized trash service from the public sector in exchange for 'selling' their recyclables. Not really how public 'infrastructure' works, per se. Aug 27 at 2:14
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You are correct, recycling systems are a part of local or national infrastructure, but it is part of the waste disposal division of infrastructure and is hence not "sexy" and there are very few votes to be gained by promoting or acknowledging it.

Roads connect people and better roads allow between to travel from one place to another more quickly and more safely. Similar argument could be made for ports, airports.

Public transport allows people without their own transport means to travel distances they cannot walk in a reasonable amount of time.

Communication infrastructure also connects people and can help them be informed of events concerning family, friends, local region, the nation, the world and the universe.

Schools and places of learning educate us.

Hospitals are them when we need medical assistance and life saving surgery.

Water and food are things we need to survive.

Electricity provides us with energy so we can use appliances to make our lives comfortable and for people with specific health issues it powers devices that keeps them alive. It also powers the world wide web that keeps us entertained, informed and allows us to purchase items without entering a store.

Sewage systems, rubbish collection and recycling is just getting rid of things we don't want and most of us don't really care about - out of sight and out of mind. "I want to get back to looking a cats or people doing silly things on Tic Tok, stop bothering me".

When was the last time you heard a public official or politician discuss a sewage plant, a waste dump site or a recycling plant. Unlike nuclear waste storage facilities, they don't stir people's passions.

There's an element of NIMBY*, regarding recycling and waste disposal.


  • NIMBY - Not In My Back Yard

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