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, but they were absolutely right that a bottle bill - a fee on top of the cost of a drink - was better for everyone than government recycling.

People would store glass bottles and Boy Scouts or whatever would come pick them up, just like they do Christmas trees. They got the money and the glass would get recycled.

Instead, we 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 would put stuff in a special bin, government would collect it using giant emissions-belching trucks, and then ship it to China on giant, emissions-belching ships where ... well, nothing. They didn't recycle it, 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. An administration 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. 

But 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.