Much of recycling is aspirational, and we choose to believe it works because we don't want to feel worse knowing it is a scam.

In the 1980s I worked as a fundraiser for an environmental group, Public Interest Research Group.  PIRG had all of the predictable anti-science activism points, which was a challenge since part of the region I covered contained a whole lot of people working at Westinghouse Nuclear, but I would concede they were goofy when it came to nuclear energy, yet argue they were absolutely right that a bottle bill - a refundable fee on top of the cost of a bottle - was better for everyone than government recycling.

Real data, not bogus survey nonsense, showed some would return bottles to get their nickel back but almost all who did not do that stored glass bottles and Boy Scouts or whoever would come pick them up, just like they do Christmas trees. They got the money and the glass would get recycled. Virtually no one would throw them in the garbage.

Instead of bottle bills that made sense, most of us got government recycling, which has meant this:

My concerns about government recycling turned out to be true. Though government is in almost every urban community now, it is a scam. A few years ago I wrote an article noting that one of California's top exports to China was recycling. We put stuff in a special bin, government employees collect it using giant emissions-belching trucks, and our taxes pay companies to ship it to China on giant, emissions-belching ships where ... well, nothing. They didn't recycle it, almost 90 percent of items California claims should go into a blue bin can't be recycled, it went into giant landfills. We could have done that here without adding all that CO2 into the atmosphere. When China decided to retaliate against the Trump administration for tariffs, they shut off California recycling too. Ironic, since California is the state most opposed to Republicans. A progressive govenment that had vowed in 2011 that 75 percent recycling would occur by 2020 suddenly slid backwards, because actual recycling plants did not want the actual useless junk that California pretended was being repurposed into useful products. 

Now two generations have grown up thinking recycling is valuable, and even bought into grander mythologies about what can actually be recycled. This “wish-cycling” is putting things into the recycling bin that people think should be recycled, like that greasy pizza box.

But no, that does more harm than good, same for that engine block you think can be recycled just because it's made of metal.

Jillian Mock
at Discover has the details.

P.S. Composting is terrible for the environment too.