The real value in recycling

PHOTO: Paul Sableman, Flickr CC-BY

Just the word “recycling” conjures a rapid eye movement flashback to countless hours of schoolroom filmstrips, TV commercials, mediocre class presentations, and low stakes political squabbles. 

You can see it now, can’t you? Yes, the logo spins circular arrows. The grinning planet Earth sprouts an anthropomorphic arm to flash a thumbs up. (No one asks about the millions who would die if the planet actually attempted to smile).

Despite the dreary repetition, most of us comply with calls to recycle. It makes good sense, after all, to avoid waste and keep garbage out of our natural environment.

But Americans typically miss the point on recycling. It’s a business, not just a public good. And even when the recycling industry loses money, it’s serving other businesses, especially ones that produce cheap plastic and products delivered in said same materials. 

In fact, the public relations push for “recycling” began with money from the plastics industry. They sought to blame regular people for the vast amount of plastic waste discarded into our environment. “Litterers,” they called them. 

This worked. 

In the eyes of the public, blaming litterers absolved from any responsibility the industry that actually produced millions of tons of disposable plastic. Now we’re so accustomed to this assumption that it hurts our heads to think about reusing containers, even though that’s what our great-grandparents all did. We still feel personal responsibility, even guilt, when we see a plastic bottle in our trash bin. That’s what three generations of marketing gets you.

But this gimmick relies on the notion that plastic is recyclable. 

Plastic recycling does not work and will never work,” reads the title of a May 30 Judith Enck and Jan Dell article in The Atlantic. 

Plastic is usually too expensive to clean and refine for a recycling company to make a profit. Sorting is nigh impossible. That means that our public sanitation departments usually pay to offload recycling to private companies who often end up landfilling it anyway.

“Recycling in general can be an effective way to reclaim natural material resources,” writes Enck and Dell. “The U.S.’s high recycling rate of paper, 68 percent, proves this point. The problem with recycling plastic lies not with the concept or process but with the material itself.”

Now, if you’ve read this far, you might take this to be a screed against recycling. It isn’t. Actually, recycling is one of the most important things we can do for our planet, our economy, and our daily quality of life. But I’m not talking about the kind of recycling you see in those old public service announcements. 

Here in northern Minnesota we’ve lived alongside the mining industry for more than a century. Most of us who grew up here take pride in the notion that we built the modern United States: steel beams, cars, appliances and, of course, the war machines. While all this is true, our one-time resources are still wasted at a staggering rate. So are all mined minerals across the world. 

According to a May 26 Freida Kreier article in the magazine Nature, more than half of all mined metals last just ten years. That is to say that half of all mineral resources go to waste. 

Now, they explain that iron is an exception to that statistic. Steel is widely recycled. In fact, scrap steel is the primary material used in newer electric arc furnaces. That’s why companies like Cleveland Cliffs are investing in large scale junkyards alongside their mining operations.

Furthermore, some estimate that more than 80 percent of the world’s copper is already in a constant loop of recycling. In the case of both copper and iron, the reason for recycling is simple: Value. It’s profitable to reuse these minerals.

But minerals like nickel and cobalt show far less success in recycling. Furthermore, complicated alloys common to modern manufacturing are difficult to break down into their base elements. This is often the stuff we find in our fancy gadgets and electric cars.

The rhetoric surrounding proposed copper-nickel mines in northern Minnesota typically suggests that important new technology like high-capacity batteries and other components for electric vehicles will require mining. That might be true in the long run. Still, the relatively small mines proposed here in Northeastern Minnesota could never meet the demand this same rhetoric implies, nor will they always be the most economically feasible option.

The most abiding problems these mines face are not the environmental challenges, but the economic ones. Widely dispersed ores under heavy overburden become expensive to extract. Mining these minerals responsibly will make it costly to mine them profitably. 

That’s why we must temper this rhetoric with some unpleasant truth. Mining is only a solution if we dramatically improve mineral recycling and dramatically decrease consumption of disposable goods. We will need to put more effort into capturing existing minerals than we spend scraping for low grade reserves.

Otherwise, it’s just another gimmick designed to buy a decade or two until the problems get worse. Mining is important, but mining without industrial-scale recycling is just more rampant consumerism destined to waste our precious non-renewable resources. 

Serious long term economic planning must wed mining with intensive recycling efforts and earnest efforts to avoid large- and small-scale waste. If you’re worried about how that might affect jobs in our region, know that we can do all of this here and that doing so will be good for our economy and our environment.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, June 26, 2022 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


  1. At one time Minnesota was something of a leader in recycling. Somehow, policy making was captured by the incineration industry and progress stopped. The MPCA, for example, operates largely as a branch of the incineration industry. Doubtless part of the problem is that Xcel Energy is directly in the garbage burning business, with burners in Mankato, Red Wing, and French Island (LaCrosse). Xcel seems to have little difficulty getting what it wants in St. Paul.
    In here is some testimony on the relationship between the MPCA and the incineration industry:

  2. Fantastic post, thank you. A thought for future consideration – Might we also consider that environmental challenges ARE economic challenges (and vice versa), in the sense that a big part of how we establish the economics of new mining vs. recovery is through the values we place on clean air, land, and water? If we undervalue these other (also nonrenewable) resources, we goose the economics of the more intensive forms of production of the metals. In other words, a true accounting of the economics will include a consideration of, for example, the “value” of water as well. It’s a difficult question to ask for obvious reasons — but have we seen our agencies really ask it any time recently? (Genuine question) All of which goes to your main point, which is that we need to be concerned with consumption of nonrenewable resources in our decisions about mining. 100%. Thank you for this excellent addition to the conversation.

    • Gerald S says

      Good comment.

      The fact is that the environment of the Range and Northeastern Minnesota is the most valuable resource we have in the struggle we face in deciding whether we want to be West Virginia or Colorado.

      No matter what happens, extraction industries are by their very nature time limited. The ore will run out. In fact, the time frame for both iron and non-ferrous mining in the region is very limited, in the neighborhood of two or three decades. Shutdowns due to price declines and the position of our ore as the most expensive in the world may prolong that in terms of the number of years until the mines shut completely, but the net time is written in stone.

      Both West Virginia and Colorado, like Northeastern Minnesota, are beautiful. But West Virginia has chosen to surrender that beauty and turn the state over to unfettered mining exploitation and freedom to poison air and water in order to extract more coal. Part of this choice is the value that West Virginians place on their culture, the life people have forged the mountains of the state, which differs from the culture of the country as a whole in important ways. Allowing mining to despoil their environment has the hidden value of keeping outside people and culture out. Ruined mountains, polluted air and water, poverty and lack of jobs, and deadly plagues of substance abuse and violence related to poverty all help to keep outsiders out, both as tourists and as potential new residents. Poor schools and health care, decaying towns, failing infrastructure, and a poorly educated work force keeps out new industry, especially 21st century industry.

      Meanwhile, Colorado, facing the extinction of its own large mining industry, chose a path of preservation of their environment in order to mine it in a new way. They have used the natural beauty of the state to lure new people and businesses, especially 21st century businesses, and used the tax money gained to improve education, health care and other services that provide the social infrastructure for growth, as well as paying for the physical infrastructure.

      Northeastern Minnesota is cold and is a long way from anywhere, at the end of the road. But it is beautiful, and has resources that can be exploited for recreation and for lifestyle. It is easy to see the value of this for the tourist industry, but the greatest value is not for tourism. The greatest value is for its role in drawing people and businesses into our region. In the era of remote work, and of added value technology and creative development of new products, we have the tools at hand to compete. I worked for many years in a high tech field and spent time recruiting new people to work with us. The natural environment, easy availability of high-quality outdoor recreation, and the clean air and water were our top recruitment tools in competing with large cities and low tax regions. But if we give that away in order to capture a few more years of extraction with an ever-decreasing number of people employed in the face of higher and higher levels of mechanization and automation, we cannot get it back. Then we will just be Appalachia with wind-chill.

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