Carpe Diem

Recommended reading for Earth Day: ‘Recycling is garbage’

Earth Day is just around the corner – it’s coming up next Monday. To help you appreciate this important annual event, I’ll be posting some Earth Day-related material over the next few days.

Let me start by recommending the classic 1996 New York Times Magazine article “Recycling is Garbage” by New York Times columnist John Tierney. Tierney’s main point in the article is that “Rinsing out tuna cans and tying up newspapers may make you feel virtuous, but recycling may be the most wasteful activity in modern America: a waste of time and money, a waste of human and natural resources.” Now you can understand why Tierney’s article broke the NY Times record for hate mail. Here’s a slice:

We’re squandering irreplaceable natural resources. Yes, a lot of trees have been cut down to make today’s newspaper. But even more trees will probably be planted in their place. America’s supply of timber has been increasing for decades, and the nation’s forests have three times more wood today than in 1920. “We’re not running out of wood, so why do we worry so much about recycling paper?” asks Jerry Taylor, the director of natural resource studies at the Cato Institute. “Paper is an agricultural product, made from trees grown specifically for paper production. Acting to conserve trees by recycling paper is like acting to conserve cornstalks by cutting back on corn consumption.”

Some resources, of course, don’t grow back, and it may seem prudent to worry about depleting the earth’s finite stores of metals and fossil fuels. It certainly seemed so during the oil shortages of the 1970′s, when the modern recycling philosophy developed. But the oil scare was temporary, just like all previous scares about resource shortages. The costs of natural resources, both renewable and nonrenewable, have been declining for thousands of years. They’ve become less scarce over time because humans have continually found new supplies or devised new technologies. Fifty years ago, for instance, tin and copper were said to be in danger of depletion, and conservationists urged mandatory recycling and rationing of these vital metals so that future generations wouldn’t be deprived of food containers and telephone wires. But today tin and copper are cheaper than ever. Most food containers don’t use any tin. Phone calls travel through fiber-optic cables of glass, which is made from sand — and should the world ever run out of sand, we could dispense with wires altogether by using cellular phones.

The only resource that has been getting consistently more expensive is human time: the cost of labor has been rising for centuries. An hour of labor today buys a larger quantity of energy or raw materials than ever before. To economists, it’s wasteful to expend human labor to save raw materials that are cheap today and will probably be cheaper tomorrow. Even the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental group that strongly favors recycling and has often issued warnings about the earth’s dwindling resources, has been persuaded that there are no foreseeable shortages of most minerals.

It is better to recycle than to throw away. This is the most enduring myth, the one that remains popular even among those who don’t believe in the garbage crisis anymore. By now, many experts and public officials acknowledge that America could simply bury its garbage, but they object to this option because it diverts trash from recycling programs. Recycling, which was originally justified as the only solution to a desperate national problem, has become a goal in itself — a goal so important that we must preserve the original problem. It’s as if the protagonist of “Pilgrim’s Progress,” upon being informed that he could drop his sinful burden right there on the road, insisted on clinging to it just so he could continue the pilgrimage to get rid of it.

14 thoughts on “Recommended reading for Earth Day: ‘Recycling is garbage’

  1. The piece is far to general. Given that their exist private companies paying for recycling, who obviously are in it for the money. For example $1 for an old riding lawn mower battery. And lots of places take aluminum cans because aluminum recycles and costs less than virgin aluminum. Newsprint has had long cycles of working and not working for recycling since long before earth day. (I recall newspaper drives in the 1950s). Most steel is recycled, all be it it is in autos and the like.
    It would be better to say that recycling makes sense for some materials and not for others. It should be noted that space for landfills is filling up, all be it that if done propery they could be a source for methane. Now it may be that if you just cut the municipally sponsored recycling pickups and went for centralized dropoffs it might make more sense. (Note that were rubbish collection is private there is no recycling provided unless required)

      • A lot of the time you make no here, no, No sense just watch the 2 minute trailer to movie “trashed”. Do you want to leave this world filled with toxic products everywhere especially in your kids fat cells and every nursing mothers. Do a little more research please. It can not be controlled by corporation only stronger government oversight is necessary. These chemicals are present in a profit

  2. I believe the practice of salvaging steel was made more profitable by the invention of the electric arc furnace foundry. So some waste streams are wildly profitable and make sense and others not so much. I’d take the advice of Julian Simon and recycle only if its worth it.

    • Indeed the Mini-Mill started by Nucor made using steel waste much more economic, and reduced the need for fresh ore. Likewise aluminum, and copper (else why is so much copper wiring and plumbing stolen). So its metals that recycle more easily. Look in the phone book for those who commercially recycle, and see what they are interested in and it will provide a guide to what makes money. Local business where I live to copper, aluminum brass, iron tin electric motors radiators, stainless steel and some do lead acid storage batteries. Of course metal recycling is not new its just a fancy name for a scrap dealer.

  3. Some data on landfills and landfill capacity: From this document

    And taking those states which reported remaining landfill capacity representing 72% of the total that is landfilled today and 75% of the total MSW that is either landfilled or recycled or otherwise disposed of in WTE or composted. If recycling continued as it is today there is enough landfill capacity remaining for 21 years and if recycling ended tomorrow there would be 14 years of capacity left at today’s generation rate. Since it is largely a political problem not an environmental problem to add to landfill capacity it has to be cheaper to add capacity and forget about recycling entirely.

    It costs on average about $30 per ton to landfill and about $150 per ton to recycle. It makes sense for scrap steel at a spot price of $200 per ton but other recyclables e.g., paper are money losers. We should just bury everything.

    • Note that paper recycling is actually old. I recall in the 1960s participating in paper drives were one went house to house to collect old newspapers to sell to the recycler. A couple of years later the price had dropped and the campaigns stopped.
      I agree that the shortage of landfill capacity is an NIMBY problem, no one ones one near where they live. So siting a new landfill is a problem. (Of course they used to be called dumps and catch fire every so often this was in the 1950s).

      • “I agree that the shortage of landfill capacity is an NIMBY problem”

        Huh? I specifically showed that landfill capacity is not a problem today or tomorrow but 20+ years from today and if recycling ended tomorrow a problem 14+ years from today. And it is unlikely that a shortage of space will ever occur as states are constantly adding capacity especially those who import garbage. IOW landfill capacity concerns is an invented problem to justify recycling. And you have bought into it.

        • But would you want one next to your property” That is what NIMBY means. When one tries to site a landfill in a metro area, someone will be near it and object. Yes if you want to move trash to West Texas there is space, but not in the east because of neighbors. Its just like the opposition to power lines. The economics change if you have to transport refuse 100s of miles to get rid of it. (For NYC now that dumping at sea is illegal they are I believe sending their trash to a site in PA)

          • When one tries to site a landfill in a metro area, someone will be near it and object.

            LOL When do you suppose the last time was that “one” tried to site a land fill in a metro area?

            Of course no one wants a landfill next to them, that’s why landfills have always been sited away from residential areas. Eventually, development may occur close to existing landfills, but that’s a different problem.

            You must have ignored Steven’s link to a Columbia University MSW management survey, which indicated that landfill capacity isn’t currently a problem.

            Contrary to what you seem to believe, there is plenty of space available for new landfills even in populated regions on the East Coast.

            have to transport refuse 100s of miles to get rid of it. (For NYC now that dumping at sea is illegal they are I believe sending their trash to a site in PA)

          • Please ignore the last sentence in my previous comment beginning with “have to transport refuse…”

          • Arkansas alone has 600 years remaining capacity for its generation rate of 3.7 million tons per year and capacity for the entire nation for 6 years. I didn’t even include Arkansas in my analysis of landfill capacity because it would skew the results too much because Arkansas as far as I can tell doesn’t import garbage (but probably should).

            The data is in the reports. I extracted it using nitro pdf extractor for excel and then converted the data into a useable format and used a standard conversion factor for cubic yards per ton 8 cy (msw) = 1 ton. Took about 10 minutes.

            Look I spent my career (1980-today) manipulating data demographic, marketing, census data and other time series into useable formats for analysis by people smarter than I am, I know how to get the data and analyze it and I am smart enough to admit my own errors but this is an area that fascinates me because there is an ongoing popular meme that recycling is “good” but to counter that meme, as Landsburg pointed out, requires a bit of work to make the analysis value free and to compare two sets of preferences.

            The bogeyman of landfill capacity shortages conjures up in the popular mind the endless expropriation of land for landfill space which is factually wrong and certainly shouldn’t be used to calibrate one’s preferences for or against recycling.

          • If nothing else, putting potentially reusable materials in a landfill makes them easy to find in the future, should they actually be needed.

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