Commentary

Recycling is Not the Answer

This article appeared in Roll Call on February 24, 1992.
Before we conclude that recycling is the “answer,” perhaps we should think hard about the question.

If the question before Congress is how best to protect the environment, conserve scarce resources, and provide for landfill space, then mandatory national recycling is not the answer.

A brief examination of the case for mandatory recycling makes that abundantly clear.

First, we are told that recycling will help preserve scarce landfill space. We are not, however, even remotely close to running out of space for our garbage. Despite the “garbage trucks could ring the Milky Way galaxy” rhetoric, all of the trash America will produce over the next 1,000 years could fit into a landfill 15 square miles in size.

Clearly, concerns about “drowning in our own garbage” are misplaced.

Although we aren’t running out of places to put landfills, many regions are failing to site the facilities necessary to meet future disposal needs. That is a result of political gridlock stemming from the NIMBY (Not-In-My-Back-Yard) phenomenon. National recycling mandates, however, will do little to alleviate the increasing shortfall in capacity.

Recycling 50 percent of the solid waste stream by the year 2000 (a difficult if not impossible proposition), for example, would still leave 95 million tons of garbage to be disposed of annually.

In California, recycling 50 percent of the waste stream tomorrow would exhaust that state’s landfill capacity by 2008 instead of 1999.

Second, we are told that recycling will help protect the environment because the alternatives - landfilling our garbage or burning it in waste-to-energy facilities - represent severe environmental threats. That, however, is specious nonsense.

Even the Environmental Protection Agency considers municipal solid waste landfills to be minimal health risks. According to the agency’s own findings, which were based on ultra-conservative, worst-case assumptions, 83 percent of America’s solid waste landfills pose a lifetime cancer risk of less than one in one million (about the same risk inherent in drinking a glass of tap water).

A full 60 percent pose less than a one in one billion health risk. Landfill design criteria recently promulgated by the EPA will reduce those minor risks even further.

The facts about incineration are similar. Using worst-case assumptions and relying on data from old, obsolete incinerators without today’s standard air pollution control devices, the EPA found that air emissions from those facilities pose a cancer risk of from one in 100,000 to one in one million.

Since modern incinerators routinely remove more than 90 percent of all toxins from the smokestack, it follows that the true health risk from modern incinerators is less than one in one million.

The only study to examine incinerator ash in actual monofills (as opposed to stringent laboratory analysis), a study co-sponsored by the EPA and the United States Conference of Mayors, concluded that ash leachates “were close to meeting drinking water standards.”

So even if ash leachates somehow found their way into groundwater, there would be little cause for concern.

The Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board recently put the negligible risk posed by modern waste incinerators into perspective when it noted that “the risk of a child contracting cancer from eating one peanut butter sandwich per month for 15 years is approximately 500 times greater than the risk of contracting cancer” from the emissions of an incinerator that is being considered by Drava County, Pa.

Contrary to popular belief, recycling is not risk-free. Most recycling processes generate large amounts of hazardous waste. In the final analysis, what’s more worrisome - old newspapers buried in the ground, or the toxic sludge generated in the process of de-inking them for recycling?

Finally, we are told that recycling conserves scarce resources. That statement is true only when the economics of recycling a given material are favorable.

The price mechanism, in the final analysis, is a reflection of the relative scarcity of human and natural resources. If virgin paper is cheaper for a manufacturer to use than recycled paper, it can only mean that the resources required to produce virgin paper are relatively more plentiful than the resources necessary to provide recycled paper.

Mandatory recycling under those conditions would mean that the recycling process would consume more resources - energy, labor, capital, or other materials - than would be consumed if non-recycled virgin materials were used.

“Imagine a business in which the cost of the raw materials far exceeds any revenues the firm’s product can generate, and the product supply far outstrips demand. You have just grasped the economics underlying curbside garbage recycling,” noted Forbes Magazine in October 1991.

The environmental lobby ignores that simple but important fact and advocates the same sort of economic central planning which ultimately led to the collapse of Eastern Europe.

Finally, let’s keep in mind that the natural resources supposedly “conserved” by recycling programs are not even remotely close to depletion.

For example, approximately 80 percent of all material recycled today is paper - yet recycling paper doesn’t save forests. Fully 87 percent of our paper stock comes from trees that are grown as a crop specifically for paper production.

Acting to “conserve trees” through paper recycling is like acting to “conserve wheat” by cutting back on bread consumption.

In fact, to the extent that paper recycling increases, tree planting will decrease as a result of reduced demand for pulp.

We are not running out of trees or forests. America has three-and-one-half times more forest land today than it had in 1920. America is growing 22 million new acres of forest annually while harvesting but 15 million acres, for a net gain of 7 million acres each year.

And why the rush to recycle glass? Are we really running out of sand?

We are told that recycling saves energy, yet energy costs are clearly part of the economic calculations that go into the pricing mechanism. Why, then, are recycled materials still more expensive for manufacturers to use than virgin materials?

Because often ignored in the energy-savings calculations peddled by the environmental lobby is the energy necessary to deliver the recyclables to collection centers, process the post-consumer material into usable commodities for manufacturers, and deliver the processed post-consumer material to manufacturing plants.

In the final analysis, the campaign for mandatory national recycling amounts to charging into a crowded theater, turning out the lights, blocking all the exits, and shouting, “Fire!”

The result is a panicky stampede through the only door left ajar - the door with Snow White’s picture on it, marked “recycling.” Behind that door, however, lies a path leading to wasted resources, increased environmental stress, and economic models based on those of Eastern Europe.

Jerry Taylor is director of natural resource studies at the Cato Institute.