October 20, 2015
Despite decades of exhortations and mandates, it's still typically more expensive for municipalities to recycle household waste than to send it to a landfill. Prices for recyclable materials have plummeted because of lower oil prices and reduced demand for them overseas. The slump has forced some recycling companies to shut plants and cancel plans for new technologies.
As cities move beyond recycling paper and metals, and into glass, food scraps and assorted plastics, the costs rise sharply while the environmental benefits decline and sometimes vanish. Recycling has been relentlessly promoted as a goal in and of itself: an unalloyed public good and private virtue that is indoctrinated in students from kindergarten through college. As a result, otherwise well-informed and educated people have no idea of the relative costs and benefits.
- To offset the greenhouse impact of one passenger's round-trip flight between New York and London, you'd have to recycle roughly 40,000 plastic bottles, assuming you fly coach.
- New York and other cities instruct people to rinse the bottles before putting them in the recycling bin, but the EPA's life-cycle calculation doesn't take that water into account.
- EPA official, J. Winston Porter advised state officials that no more than about 35 percent of the nation's trash was worth recycling, but some states ignored him and set goals of 50 percent and higher.
- All the trash generated by Americans for the next 1,000 years would fit on one-tenth of 1 percent of the land available for grazing.
Cities have been burying garbage for thousands of years, and it's still the easiest and cheapest solution for trash. It would take legions of garbage police to enforce a zero-waste society, but true believers insist that's the future. The recycling movement is floundering, and its survival depends on continual subsidies, sermons and policing.
Source: John Tierney, "The Reign of Recycling," New York Times, October 3, 2015.
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