The Corner

If You’re Recycling, You’re Wasting Your Time

I don’t recycle. I stopped recycling in 2001, when I lived in Ithaca, New York, and recycling was mandatory. We had to throw away our garbage in clear plastic bags so that the recycling police could make sure there was no paper or plastic in the trash, we had to pay for every single bag of trash we thew away (we called it our “garbage fine”), and — when we initially labored in good faith to comply with recycling mandates – we found it was tough to keep our small apartment clean and bug-free while piling empty cans, bottles, and boxes in the corner of our kitchen. So when we found there was a short window of time where we could go to the local landfill and get away with tossing out garbage in opaque, thick Hefty bags, we defied the law and never looked back.

Even now — as we live in the free state of Tennessee — when friends come over and ask where we put our recycling, we just say “In the trash” and revel just a tiny bit in our ancient rebellion. But now — thanks to the New York Times, of all publications — I feel vindicated. This month, John Tierney revisited his 1996 critique of recycling, and what he found was fascinating indeed (h/t AEI’s Mark J. Perry):

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!”

And:

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?”

Tierney doesn’t claim that all recycling is worthless, but he notes some rather inconvenient facts — like the mere act of rinsing off your plastic recyclables may actually increase the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. And while it “makes sense to recycle commercial cardboard and some paper,” an EPA official said that “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.”

But do we have enough room in landfills? Yes:

One of the original goals of the recycling movement was to avert a supposed crisis because there was no room left in the nation’s landfills. But that media-inspired fear was never realistic in a country with so much open space. In reporting the 1996 article I found that all the trash generated by Americans for the next 1,000 years would fit on one-tenth of 1 percent of the land available for grazing. And that tiny amount of land wouldn’t be lost forever, because landfills are typically covered with grass and converted to parkland, like the Freshkills Park being created on Staten Island. The United States Open tennis tournament is played on the site of an old landfill — and one that never had the linings and other environmental safeguards required today.

Though most cities shun landfills, they have been welcomed in rural communities that reap large economic benefits (and have plenty of greenery to buffer residents from the sights and smells). Consequently, the great landfill shortage has not arrived, and neither have the shortages of raw materials that were supposed to make recycling profitable.

Tierney concludes with paragraphs rarely seen in the Times — where he compares environmentalism to *gasp* a religion. Yes, he does:

Then why do so many public officials keep vowing to do more of it? Special-interest politics is one reason — pressure from green groups — but it’s also because recycling intuitively appeals to many voters: 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.

And that’s exactly what started my own little rebellion. Environmentalists, I truly don’t care if you choose to waste your time composting, sorting yogurt packets, and competing with each other to see who can throw away the smallest bags of garbage. Just don’t make me join your faith. 

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