Is recycling worth it?

August 4, 2000

Dear Cecil:

I recently read a commentary that most recycling programs are a waste. Among the points noted were: no shortage of landfill space (another thousand years of garbage would only fill an area 35 miles square by 100 yards deep), double energy consumption and pollution (just preparing the recyclables can use as much energy and create as much waste as using virgin material), and cost (most recycling programs lose money). So, Cecil, we need a straight answer. Are our weekly green-inspired trips to the curb a bust or not?

Been giving this some thought lately. Here's what I've got so far: (1) Yeah, recycling is stupid. A lot of it, anyway. (2) You still should do it. Go a distance with me on this, it'll all come clear in the end.

The commentary you read sounds like it was based on "Recycling Is Garbage," a controversial 1996 article in the New York Times Magazine by contrarian John Tierney (www.nrdc.org/cities/recycling/rec yc/appenda.asp). Tierney's thesis: "Mandatory recycling programs aren't good for posterity. They offer mainly short-term benefits to a few groups--politicians, public relations consultants, environmental organizations, waste-handling corporations--while diverting money from genuine social and environmental problems. Recycling may be the most wasteful activity in modern America: a waste of time and money, a waste of human and natural resources."

The article attracted wide notice and was parroted by conservative columnists around the country. It also provoked a spirited defense of recycling by environmental groups, notably Environmental Defense (www.edf.org/pubs/Newslett er/1996/sep/o_recycl.html) and the National Resources Defense Council (www.nrdc.org/cities/recycling/recy c/recyinx.asp). To cover the points raised in your letter:

  • Are we running out of landfill space? No. On this issue Tierney was right--the landfill crisis of the late 1980s was a myth propagated by the media with the aid of environmentalists. Though municipal solid-waste disposal will always be a challenge in the densely populated northeast, the U.S. is a big country with lots of room for landfills. Properly designed facilities are environmentally benign. Some communities welcome them (usually poorer ones that want the jobs and taxes).
  • Does recycling double energy consumption and pollution? No. Some early curbside recycling programs (and no doubt a few today) wasted resources due to bureaucratic overhead and duplicate trash pickups (for garbage and then again for recyclables). But the situation has improved as cities have gained experience. From a big-picture standpoint, processing of recyclables generally requires fewer resources than virgin materials, although this depends on the material. More on this below.
  • Do most recycling programs lose money? Of course. So does plain old garbage collection. The question is whether disposal programs involving recycling are more expensive than the old-fashioned variety. Answer: at the outset, yes. After a few years, however, many municipalities find that recycling saves money. Some don't, and eventually those folks may want to reconsider the wisdom of their recycling program. The fact remains that recycling in response to an arbitrary government fiat is a useful exercise. Municipal waste disposal historically has been considered an unavoidable expense, with little thought given to whether it could be done more cheaply. Mandatory recycling compels you to give it that little bit of thought: do we really need to throw all this junk away?

Case in point: grass clippings. For decades Americans simply bagged this stuff and threw it in the garbage with the coffee grounds. Then, in response to the (apparent) landfill crisis, some jurisdictions banned landscape debris from city garbage pickups. Lo and behold, some genius invented the mulching lawn mower, which chopped clipped grass into tiny bits and deposited the unnoticeable result on the lawn. (I've got one, works like a charm.) Poof--a major waste disposal issue simply disappeared.

All that having been said, the fact that something can be recycled doesn't mean it should be. Forget the esoteric arguments about externalities, finite resources, and so on--in the end recycling will (or won't) work because it is (or isn't) cheaper than throwing stuff away. This varies with the material being recycled. As a general proposition, any manufactured product that is (a) heavy or expensive in relation to its bulk, (b) homogeneous, and (c) easily separable from the waste stream by consumers can be recycled economically. Metals, notably steel and aluminum, are the obvious examples; both have high recycling rates. Surprisingly, so does newsprint. The poor candidates, at the moment, are plastics and mixed paper (including magazines). Plastics are too light and heterogeneous, while mixed paper contains too many contaminants. In the end we may conclude that this junk is best consigned to landfills. But given the advance of technology, who knows? We're in the midst of a great national experiment, and we'd be foolish at this stage to prejudge the results.

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