I recycle. Seems the thing to do. And it’s mandatory at my work. But I have become very dubious of “zero waste” initiatives that try to use biodegradable and recyclable materials in everything. I have long suspected that these efforts wind up using more energy and generating more waste than just throwing things away, negating any supposed gain in landfill space. I’m not against recycling. I just want the increasingly onerous mandates to be supported by some kind of evidence … any kind of evidence.
John Tierney criticized recycling 20 years ago as a huge waste of time and money that did little to benefit the planet. 20 years later, he finds that it is still a huge waste of time and money that doesn’t benefit the planet:
Despite decades of exhortations and mandates, it’s still typically more expensive for municipalities to recycle household waste than to send it to a landfill. Prices for recyclable materials have plummeted because of lower oil prices and reduced demand for them overseas. The slump has forced some recycling companies to shut plants and cancel plans for new technologies. The mood is so gloomy that one industry veteran tried to cheer up her colleagues this summer with an article in a trade journal titled, “Recycling Is Not Dead!”
While politicians set higher and higher goals, the national rate of recycling has stagnated in recent years. Yes, it’s popular in affluent neighborhoods like Park Slope in Brooklyn and in cities like San Francisco, but residents of the Bronx and Houston don’t have the same fervor for sorting garbage in their spare time.
The future for recycling looks even worse. As cities move beyond recycling paper and metals, and into glass, food scraps and assorted plastics, the costs rise sharply while the environmental benefits decline and sometimes vanish. “If you believe recycling is good for the planet and that we need to do more of it, then there’s a crisis to confront,” says David P. Steiner, the chief executive officer of Waste Management, the largest recycler of household trash in the United States. “Trying to turn garbage into gold costs a lot more than expected. We need to ask ourselves: What is the goal here?”
The goal? The goal is to do what radical religions always do: make people inconvenience themselves and sacrifice for the supposed greater good as a method of control. Even if stone tablets descended from heaven proving that recycling was bad for the planet and always would be, the environmentalists would still want us to do it. Because the inconvenience, the sacrifice, the annoyance, the cost is the point.
But the benefits? The are increasingly elusive:
Here’s some perspective: To offset the greenhouse impact of one passenger’s round-trip flight between New York and London, you’d have to recycle roughly 40,000 plastic bottles, assuming you fly coach. If you sit in business- or first-class, where each passenger takes up more space, it could be more like 100,000.
Just a reminder: many of the politicians pushing these mandates fly on private jets. You could recycle every plastic bottle you touch in your entire life and not offset the environmental impact of Al Gore making a single trip to Paris.
Even those statistics might be misleading. New York and other cities instruct people to rinse the bottles before putting them in the recycling bin, but the E.P.A.’s life-cycle calculation doesn’t take that water into account. That single omission can make a big difference, according to Chris Goodall, the author of “How to Live a Low-Carbon Life.” Mr. Goodall calculates that if you wash plastic in water that was heated by coal-derived electricity, then the net effect of your recycling could be more carbon in the atmosphere.
The national rate of recycling rose during the 1990s to 25 percent, meeting the goal set by an E.P.A. official, J. Winston Porter. He advised state officials that no more than about 35 percent of the nation’s trash was worth recycling, but some ignored him and set goals of 50 percent and higher. Most of those goals were never met and the national rate has been stuck around 34 percent in recent years.
“It makes sense to recycle commercial cardboard and some paper, as well as selected metals and plastics,” he says. “But other materials rarely make sense, including food waste and other compostables. The zero-waste goal makes no sense at all — it’s very expensive with almost no real environmental benefit.”
Landfills are not a problem. You could store all our garbage for the next millennium in a tiny tiny fraction of the space we have available in the country. Many communities welcome landfills because they bring money, have almost no environmental impact and generate energy from methane. Recycling does benefit the environment for aluminum cans, cardboard and some paper. So you should recycle those things. But for plastic, glass and compost, the benefits are minimal while the cost — in terms of money, in terms of pollution, in terms of the loss of freedom, in terms of wasted time and effort — is enormous.
Final thought from Tierney on the real reason for this crap:
It makes people feel virtuous, especially affluent people who feel guilty about their enormous environmental footprint. It is less an ethical activity than a religious ritual, like the ones performed by Catholics to obtain indulgences for their sins.
Religious rituals don’t need any practical justification for the believers who perform them voluntarily. But many recyclers want more than just the freedom to practice their religion. They want to make these rituals mandatory for everyone else, too, with stiff fines for sinners who don’t sort properly. Seattle has become so aggressive that the city is being sued by residents who maintain that the inspectors rooting through their trash are violating their constitutional right to privacy.
No doubt, someone will “debunk” Tierney’s points. People are already saying, “well, plastics last forever!”. But that may not be true. They’ll drag out the arguments that they use for alternative energy, that it will become profitable any day now, arguments that are somewhat strained. They’ll talk about the exaggerated danger of plastic in the seas. They’ll accuse him of being a Koch-brothers Republican business jerk who doesn’t care. But I doubt they’ll address his criticisms head on. Because they haven’t for the last twenty years.
Look, I like recycling. The idea of throwing things away instead of reusing them offends me. Not as environmentalist, but as a conservative who doesn’t believe in wasting money or material. I want to believe that this is all benefiting the planet. But it’s getting really hard to make that case.