Our Widespread Faith In Recycling Is Misplaced

August 27, 1997 • Commentary
This article appeared in Copley News Service.

The Earth. It’s hard not to like it. Many people adore it. Indeed, there has long been a strand of environmentalism that treats nature as divine. So‐​called Deep Ecologists, for instance, term their “eco‐​terrorist” attacks acts of worship to the planet. Few Americans would go so far, of course, but many of them worship in their own way. They recycle.

A decade ago a wandering garbage barge set off a political crisis: Where will we put our trash? The media inflamed people’s fears of mounting piles of garbage. A variety of interest groups — particularly “public relations consultants, environmental organizations, waste‐​handling corporations,” according to journalist John Tierney — lobbied to line their pockets. Politicians seeking to win votes enacted a spate of laws and regulations to encourage and often mandate recycling.

But while politics did help create an industry, it did not generate the moral fervor behind it. Many people see recycling as their way to help preserve the planet. For some, it may be the environmental equivalent of serving time in Purgatory, attempting to atone for the materialist excesses of a consumer society. It allows one to feel good about oneself even while enjoying every modern convenience.

This moral fervor comes at a price. A new study from the Reason Foundation, “Packaging, Recycling, and Solid Waste,” concludes that recycling, though sometimes beneficial, all too often wastes resources. But then, it has long been known that most trash isn’t worth reusing, recycling programs usually lose money, and landfills offer a safe disposal method.

Indeed, a year ago John Tierney wrote a devastating article for The New York Times Magazine titled “Recyling is Garbage.” He declared that the emperor had no clothes: “Recycling may be the most wasteful activity in modern America: a waste of time and money, a waste of human and natural resources.”

His points were many. For instance, packaging saves resources, reducing food spoilage. Fast‐​food meals generate less trash per person than do home‐​cooked meals. The cheapest way to dispose of garbage is in a landfill. Modern dumps incorporate a range of safeguards and take up a minuscule amount of space.

A. Clark Wiseman of Spokane’s Gonzaga University figures that, at the current rate, Americans could put all of the trash generated over the next 1,000 years into a landfill 100 yards high and 35 miles square. Or dig a similar‐​size hole and plant grass on top after it was filled.

Recycling, in contrast, costs money. New York City’s mandatory program spends $200 more per ton to collect recyclables than it would cost to bury them, and another $40 per ton to pay a company to process them. Tierney figures the value of the private labor wasted complying with the rules (rinsing, taking off labels, sorting) to be literally hundreds of dollars more per ton.

Yet there is no environmental reason to recycle trash. Resources are not scarce. In fact, much newsprint comes from trees grown for that specific purpose. Even Worldwatch, a reliably hysterical group that has constantly (though luckily, so far inaccurately) predicted impending environmental doom, now acknowledges: “The question of scarcity may never have been the most important one.”

Moreover, making recyclables generates waste. For instance, producing paperboard burger containers yields more air and water pollution and consumes more energy than does manufacturing polystyrene clamshells. It takes more water to recycle newsprint than to make it afresh.

How can such a wasteful practice persist? Tierney concluded: “By turning garbage into a political issue, environmentalists have created jobs for themselves as lawyers, lobbyists, researchers, educators and moral guardians. Environmentalists may genuinely believe they’re helping the Earth, but they have been hurting the common good while profiting personally.”

Tierney’s article infuriated environmentalists, but was ignored by business, which is paying much of the cost of the recycling liturgy. Only silence emanated from companies that have the most to gain from returning garbage to the marketplace.

Yet inaction is a prescription for more regulation. The federal government is considering increasing its national objective for recycling from 25 percent to 35 percent, 41 states already impose some form of goal or mandate regarding trash reduction and recycling, and some jurisdictions are considering new laws, such as so‐​called advance disposal fees. Politicians who care little about facts and feel political pressure only from environmentalists are likely to add new rules and toughen existing ones.

If people want to worship the Earth by recycling, they are certainly free to do so. But the government shouldn’t dragoon skeptics into the same wasteful ceremonies. It is time for an environmental reformation, in which lawmakers change public policy to reflect the wastefulness of recycling.

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