NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Is Recycling Garbage?

July 1, 1996

Millions of Americans sort their garbage, avoid disposable packaging and feel guilty about waste. But many experts think that the cost of recycling outweighs its benefits and that Americans are actually quite efficient. For example:

  • The typical household in Mexico City produces one-third more garbage than an American household, chiefly because Mexicans buy fresh food in bulk and throw away large portions that are unused, spoiled or stale.
  • Lightweight plastic packaging and foam make produce less likely to spoil, and require less energy to manufacture and transport than cardboard or paper.
  • A typical McDonald's is so efficient, it discards less than two ounces of garbage for each customer served, less than the waste from a typical meal at home.
  • Juice cartons take half the landfill space occupied by glass bottles, and 12 plastic grocery bags fit the space used by one paper bag.

In 1986 about 10 percent of solid waste was recycled at little cost to consumers or taxpayers.

Today, about 25 percent is recycled, but achieving that level has been costly. Most states initially set even higher goals, such as 50 percent in New York and California , 60 percent in New Jersey and 70 percent in Rhode Island -- but none achieved them.

  • At today's prices, curbside recycling programs typically add 15 percent to the cost of waste disposal.
  • And in New York City collecting a ton of recyclable items is three times more expensive than collecting a ton of garbage -- $200 more per ton than it would cost to bury the material in a landfill.

While recycling does sometimes save energy and reduce pollutants because less paper, glass and metal are manufactured, there may be more cost-effective ways to achieve the same goals.

  • You would have to use a ceramic mug 1,000 times before the energy consumed per use was equal to using polystyrene cups -- and if the mug broke after only 900 washings, it would have been more efficient to use 900 plastic cups.
  • Requiring 5 cent bottle and can deposits may cost $500 for every ton of cans and bottles collected, but states like Texas and Washington have proven that the most efficient way to reduce litter is to hire roadside clean-up crews.

Where will we put all the garbage? America today has more landfill space available than it did 10 years ago, and if the nation keeps generating garbage at current rates for 1,000 years, the garbage would only fill a landfill 100 yards deep, and 35 miles square.

Source: John Tierney, "Recycling Garbage," New York Times Magazine, June 30, 1996.


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