The New York Times has an article
in the "Your Money" section this past weekend exploring the efficacy of individual recycling and how the act of recycling impacts individual behavior for better or for worse. It's a good read since it explores the real risk that recycling is a token gesture for a "get out of jail card" for consumerist behavior. The article tries to explore both sides in the typical "balanced" approach to journalism these days. Sadly the data is not definitive as to whether recycling programs reduce landfill and total energy use.
While recycling is getting its due, the new black these days is "compostable" as the free pass. Silicon Valley is full of companies offering free meals, and in the cult of efficiency many offer a huge amount of disposables for use. The pass these days is "it's ok, it's compostable" but that assumes a lot of things. The first is that it will actually compost, the argument is that the fork is "bigdegradable" but just because it can degrade does not mean it will unless in the right conditions. But even if it was degrading, that neglects the greenhouse gas impact of the lifecycle of the plastic fork or paper plate.
There is energy in producing the materials that will compost, it's classic thermodynamics. Looking at the energy equation in isolation misses the whole picture. Is it better than the alternative, probably. But it's not a total pass.
The environmental discussion is rationalized in so many ways, oh I should do X instead of Y because that's where the real energy savings are. True, but if you can do Y still why should you not do Y. The logic is I shouldn't murder because that a real bad crime, and I'll not do that instead of armed robbery. You probably shouldn't do both.
It's easy to get cynical about recycling and stop, so the environmental challenge is a spectrum and continuous. Or as Billy Beane (well Brad Pitt) said in Moneyball, "it's a process, it's a process, it's a process"