Good Intentions and Bad Policy

No matter what your sixth grade teacher or My Weekly Reader said, America is not running out of space to put its garbage, recycling is not always good, and the world is not running out of resources.

The well-financed cultural mantra that recycling is both desirable and environmentally necessary has nearly become as much a truth beyond critical examination as that murder is wrong and that the earth is round. Our schools have been full of it. Mothers didn't even want juice boxes in school lunches because of fears that they couldn't be recycled.

Still, it has become harder over the years to ignore the fact that sometimes simply throwing garbage away is more environmentally friendly, financially prudent – and safer for human health. Now comes confirmation from an unlikely source – the New York Times Magazine. "Recycling is Garbage," writes John Tierney of the Times.

Among other failings of recycling, it is frequently uneconomical. Tierney calculates that it costs more than $3,000 to recycle a ton of scrap metal, glass and plastic in New York City. "For that price," he writes, "you could find a one-ton collection of those materials at a used-car lot – a Toyota Tercel, for instance – and drive home in it."

And, all things considered, you would need to use your ceramic coffee cup 1,000 times before it would be less environmentally expensive than a throw-away polystyrene cup.

For some materials, recycling is good, and businesses have long known this. For instance, recycling aluminum cans requires 10% less energy than making them from virgin materials. And more than 10 million automobile tires are recycled for retreads each year, reducing the energy used to produce tires by 30%. But such success stories are not usually transferable to other forms of waste.

Now, it would not matter if the true believers in recycling recycled away to their heart's content – except that they have been able all too often to make their beliefs public policy. In 1986, about 10% of solid waste was recycled at little cost to consumers or taxpayers. Today, with statutory mandates in many communities, about 25% is recycled. But achieving that level has been costly and the programs lose money. Most states initially set even higher goals, such as 50% in New York and California, 60% in New Jersey, and 70% in Rhode Island – but none achieved them. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani recently declared New York's legislated goals "absurd" and "impossible."

At today's prices, curbside recycling programs typically add 15% to the cost of waste disposal. One should remember that every dollar spent on inefficient recycling and waste reduction efforts is unavailable for other important social programs, including other environmental protection efforts.

Sometimes the zeal to mandate recycling and the use of recycled products has created worse environmental and health hazards than the problems they were meant to solve. For instance, government mandated recycling of newsprint requires de-inking – involving the use of toxics that create worse disposal problems. In February, the Associated Press reported that a county road in Washington state was closed because smoke and fire kept bursting through its surface. The roadway had been built with recycled tires that began to rust as rain seeped beneath the road's surface, causing heat, impenetrable clouds of steam and eventually fire.

By anointing recycling as the preferred method of disposal, environmentalists ignored technological, geographic, economic, and social limits to its usefulness. In Wyoming, where transportation costs are high and land is cheap, it may make less sense to buy and use recycled paper than it does in New York.

Legislated mandates for the use and purchase of recycled products have wasted taxpayers' money, cost consumers both at the point of purchase and by limiting product options, dampened the development of resource-saving technological innovations, and on occasion harmed the environment.

But don't we need to recycle because we're running out of scarce resources? Hardly. Technology makes it possible to use resources without exhausting them, which is why the prices of most natural resources, as well as food, have been falling for decades. One example: A fiberglass cable made with 25 kilograms of sand (about 55 pounds) can carry 1,000 times as many messages today as a wire made with a ton of copper. So copper prices are down, and its supply in no danger of depletion.

And if throwing something away is the best choice, there is room to do that, too. If we keep generating garbage at current rates for 1,000 years, how big would a landfill 100 yards deep need to be to hold it? Just 35 miles square.