It took man only 20 centuries or so to give up trying to transmute base metals into gold. How long will it take us to stop trying to turn our rubbish into gold? As John Tierney put it 23 years ago in the New York Times, “Recycling Is Garbage.”
It may make sense to recycle a few items for the savings in carbon emissions — paper, cardboard, and metals such as aluminum from cans. Recycling a ton of these items saves about three tons of carbon dioxide. Glass, plastic, rubber, all the other stuff? Not really. We used to send our plastic empties to China, but China has lost interest, as The Atlantic’s Alana Semuels reports in “Is This the End of Recycling?” The subhead reads, “Now that other countries won’t take our papers and plastics, they’re ending up in the trash.” Some municipalities are directing those recycling trucks to the nearest incinerator. A transfer station in New Hampshire reports that sending rubbish to a landfill costs $68 a ton. Recycling it? That costs $125 a ton. Wasn’t recycling supposed to save us money, not cost twice as much?
In an episode of the Showtime series Bulls**t!, Penn and Teller profiled an L.A. mom who averred, of recycling, “It just seems like the right thing to do. . . . I feel like I’m being a good person. I’m doing my part. I’m setting an example for my kids. It’s a way of life.” She worried that not recycling might put more toxins in the food. “Toxins in the food?” replied host Penn Jillette. “S**t, we all eat food, a lot!” To explore just how much bulls**t people would put up with, Penn and Teller’s team sent a crew to one L.A. couple’s house and explained to them a new pilot program that would create several new categories of recycling, each with a color-coded bin. This bin is for lightly soiled toilet paper. This one is for wet food. This one is for labeled metal cans. By the time the crew were done, the hapless citizens had nine huge bins on their curb. How did they respond to this elaborate prank? They not only couldn’t tell it was a prank — they loved it. “I think it’s an excellent program,” said one of them.
Note that people can lose track of cost/benefit analysis if they feel virtuous. What about all the time it takes in the household to wash and sort all this stuff? How much is it going to cost to convert all this rubbish into usable material? Los Angeles estimates that because of recycling programs, it operates twice as many trucks as it otherwise would. “Recycling,” wrote Tierney in his monumental 1996 piece, “may be the most wasteful activity in modern America: a waste of time and money, a waste of human and natural resources.”
If there is a Saint Paul of the recycling movement, it might be J. Winston Porter, the E.P.A. official behind an influential federal paper, The Solid Waste Dilemma: An Agenda for Action, that advised Americans in 1989 that we were running out of landfill space and that “recycling is absolutely vital.” Possibly no policy change in the last half century has proved so popular: Is there any cheaper way to purchase a sense of virtue? Tossing your Dannon container in the color-coordinated barrel is a lot more convenient than going to church, much less paying attention to the service. Yet today even Porter is questioning the recycling boom, telling Tierney that most kinds of recycling, such as composting, make no sense at all.
The environmental cost of trash has been oversold. All of the trash Americans produce over the next millennium would fit on one-tenth of 1 percent of the land available for grazing, and lots of rural communities are open for business when it comes to accepting urban rubbish. There is no landfill shortage. If you’ve ever been to the U.S. Open tennis championship in Queens, you’ve seen what becomes of landfills: Arthur Ashe Stadium is built on one. Modern landfills have little environmental impact, although they do produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas. New landfills capture that methane to use it for fuel, however.
Americans who perhaps have a bit more difficulty finding ways to certify their own virtue — recycling is really popular in places such as San Francisco and Park Slope, not so much in places where people actually go to church — are going to be stubborn about giving up their recycling habits. But New York City’s recycling program is a costly disaster: It runs New Yorkers $300 more to recycle a ton of trash than it would to put it in a landfill. When the next budget crunch hits New York — and that’s due approximately ten seconds after the next stock-market crash — recycling would be an excellent program to cut. Recycling that empty bottle of Poland Spring is so expensive that it’s cheaper to simply manufacture a new one.
As for emissions benefits, Tierney notes that to offset the impact of a round-trip flight between New York and London, you’d have to recycle 40,000 plastic bottles. If you fly coach. That’s if you don’t account for the effects of rinsing out the bottle before putting it in the bin. Use hot water, and your recycling habit might actually be adding to total emissions.
These points have been made for many years, and they’ll be made for many more, because the warm glow of virtue, especially when it comes at no visible cost to the consumer, is just too hard to resist. As The Onion put it way back in 1997: “EPA: Recycling Eliminated More Than 50 Million Tons of Guilt in ’96.”