Carpe Diem

Recommended reading for Earth Day: ‘Recycling is garbage’ from the NYTimes in 1996; it broke the record for hate mail

Earth Day is coming up tomorrow. To help you prepare for this annual event about the environment, I recommend reading the classic 1996 New York Times Magazine article “Recycling is Garbage” by New York Times columnist John Tierney, especially if you’re one of the millions of Americans who suffer from “garbage guilt,” as Tierney describes one of the religious components of recycling.

Tierney’s controversial argument is that recycling may be the most wasteful activity in modern America. “Rinsing out tuna cans and tying up newspapers may make you feel virtuous, but it’s a waste of time and money, a waste of human and natural resources.” Now you can understand why Tierney’s article set the record for the greatest amount of hate mail in New York Times history. Here are some excerpts:

On recycling as a religious experience:

…. the public’s obsession wouldn’t have lasted this long unless recycling met some emotional need. Americans have embraced recycling as a transcendental experience, an act of moral redemption. We’re not just reusing our garbage; we’re performing a rite of atonement for the sin of excess.

On resource scarcity:

We’re [supposedly] 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 1970s, 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.

On “human time” as a precious, non-renewable, scarce resource:

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. “In retrospect,” a Worldwatch report notes, “the question of scarcity may never have been the most important one.”

On the enduring myth that “it is better to recycle than to throw away“:

That enduring myth 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. Why is it better to recycle? The usual justifications are that it saves money and protects the environment. These sound reasonable until you actually start handling garbage.

8 thoughts on “Recommended reading for Earth Day: ‘Recycling is garbage’ from the NYTimes in 1996; it broke the record for hate mail

  1. The whole point of religious rituals is to make you feel virtuous through penance. Why would environmentalism be any different? Catholics employ confession. Environmentalists prefer recycling.

  2. As a liberal, you go where the evidence leads. And in this case I think conservatives may be right. While recycling programs seem to be good for civic involvement, I’ve never seen a lifecycle cost/benefit of recycling. Where are the benfits?

    • to answer this look at what commercial recyclers pay for and how much. Copper is one example where it is so valuable that theives have discovered that you can make money stealing pipes and wires from empty buildings (even with the risk of electrocution if the wires are live). Of course this is because copper prices are a lot higher than they used to be. Steel is recycled with over 83% of steel put into use in the US being recycled (this includes recyling at the steel plant, at manufacturing plants, and auto recycling yards).

      Even before recycling was a big things civic groups would run paper drives going from door to door to pick up paper and cart it to the paper recycler. However in some years the paper recylers did not pay for the paper, so no paper drive, in other years it was a way for a civic group to raise money.
      So of course this does raise the question what if communities stopped the door to door pickup of recycling, and left it to civic groups to do to raise money?

      • The price of copper might have something to do with thefts from buildings but there are other factors that have been ignored. Stealing copper from a building is hard, dirty, dangerous work, but not dangerous enough. The chances of being apprehended in the act are small and convictions are rare, unlike something clean, like shoplifting. The cops couldn’t care less about a copper theft, which involves felony breaking and entering, but store security goes after thieves with enthusiasm.

    • “As a liberal, you go where the evidence leads. ”

      I must have read this a dozen times, and it’s still funny! Thanks for making my day!

  3. Nothing wrong with auto bone yards, nothing wrong with metal scrap yards, and there is certainly nothing wrong with giving aluminum cans to Habitat for Humanity (please do that!).

    But there is a whole lot wrong with government-contracted recycling which charges you extra to do their work for them. You spend valuable time sorting the stuff, and as often as not (especially when commodity prices are low), the stuff get dumped in the landfill with everything else. What that proves is that you are not recycling, you are only an unpaid sorter of trash.

    If the government stepped aside and the value of the recycled materials is enough to generate profit, private entrepreneurs will become involved. As in most cities, the private contractors are only involved because of large lucrative contracts paid by the taxpayers. And that, my friends, is called rent-seeking.

    It is a known fact that it is far cheaper to directly landfill or incinerate trash. If we need plastics 500 years from now, the landfills can be mined more cheaply than the present cost of “recycling” and presently there is no significant economic gain to recycling plastic, paper or glass when virgin raw materials are plentiful.

    If you buy into the mind-set of the kook-fringe environmentalists … just because they say that you are “recycling” doesn’t make it so – unless you are reusing the stuff yourself.

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