NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Recycling Trendy, But Often Costly

July 20, 1996

New evidence suggests that sometimes simply throwing garbage away is more environmentally friendly, financially prudent and safer for human health than following the omnipresent fashion of recycling.

An article by John Tierny, "Recycling is Garbage," which appeared in the New York Times Magazine, challenges the current recycling wisdom. While recycling occasionally makes economic sense (aluminum cans, automobile tires), it is more often a pointless and costly exercise.

  • Tierny calculates that it costs more than $3,000 to recycle one ton of scrap metal, glass and plastic in New York City.
  • And one would have to use a ceramic coffee cup 1,000 times before it would be less environmentally expensive than a throw-away polystyrene cup.
  • Today, about 25 percent of solid waste is recycled compared to about 10 percent 10 years ago, and far below the 50 percent to 70 percent goals originally set in many communities.
  • At today's prices, curbside recycling programs typically add 15 percent to the cost of waste disposal.

A number of governments are starting to rethink recycling. New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani recently called New York's recycling goals "absurd" and "impossible."

Sometimes mandates to recycle and use recycled products create worse environmental and health hazards than the problems they were meant to solve.

  • Government-mandated recycling of newsprint requires de-inking -- involving the use of toxic chemicals that create worse disposal problems.
  • A road in Washington state built with recycled tires had to be closed after it began smoking and eventually burst into flames.

Critics charge that legislated mandates for the use and purchase of recycled products have wasted taxpayers' money, cost consumers more, 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.

Technology, they contend, has made it possible to use resources without danger of exhausting them. And as for the space necessary to dispose of solid waste by traditional methods, garbage generated at current rates for the next 1,000 years could be contained in a landfill just 100 yards deep and 35 miles square.

Source: Former Gov. Pete du Pont (National Center for Policy Analysis), "Rubbish Bin of Recycling," Washington Times, July 20, 1996.


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