Trash Talk

Recycling, What A Waste?

A man tells about trying to throw a trash can away, the one thing it seems a garbage man won’t pick up.

“One morning I set an old rusty trash can out at the street thinking that the garbage man would understand it needed to be thrown away; but when I came back that afternoon the can was still stacked up with the rest of my empty trash cans.  The next week I put it out again, and this time I turned it upside down so he could see that the bottom had several holes in it and it needed to be taken away. Yet when I came home it was still there, again next to the other empty cans.  The following week I took a sledgehammer and I beat the can in pretty good and left it out front.  However, when I came home not only was it stacked up next to the other empty trash cans, but the garbage man had actually tried to beat it back into shape. And so finally I did the only thing I could do. I went to the hardware store, bought a heavy duty chain with a padlock and I secured the old can to a large tree in my front yard.  Sure enough, that night somebody stole it!

Way back In 1995, the New York Times science editor, John Tierney, wrote an article about compulsory recycling.  He entitled it, Recycling Is Garbage.  Here’s what the award-winning journalist penned then:

Rinsing out tuna cans and tying up newspapers may make you feel virtuous, but it’s a waste of time and money as well as human and natural resources.  People 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.

Needless to say, no article the liberal Times has ever published received more attacks than this one.   Now it’s been twenty years since someone dared to challenge one of the holy grails of the environmental movement, recycling, with millions of citizens even celebrating an annual Earth Day.  Then last week, John Tierney, after almost a quarter of a century, updated his original newspaper piece.  Here’s what he said:

While it’s true that the religion of recycling has gained even more converts than ever, when it comes to the bottom line, both economically and environmentally, not much has changed.  As a matter of fact, recycling may be the most wasteful activity in our whole modern history.  And recycling’s future looks even worse than its past.

Mr. Tierney’s now been joined by Dr. Daniel Benjamin, Professor of Economics at Clemson University and author of  Eight Great Myths Of Recycling.


So why not recycle?  The two men say, economically (it’s cheaper to keep refuse as garbage) and environmentally (it’s cleaner to keep refuse as garbage).
First, the arithmetic.  It costs way more to recycle garbage than it does to landfill it.  And trash generated by North Americans for the next 1,000 years would fit on 1/10th of 1 percent of land currently available for grazing.  As well, it’s much cheaper to make an item from scratch than it is to make it out of recycled materials.  The only reason the recycled price may seem reasonable is because of large government subsidies.

Second, the atmosphere.  The facts are that more carbon emissions are caused in recycling an item than are in just making the same thing anew.   From picking-up, to delivering, to sorting, to cleaning, to heating, to remaking, to storing, to transporting, to assembling (let alone the massive political bureaucracy that goes along with any government program) and the resulting fuel burned makes things worse not better.

Here are some examples cited by the two men:

It costs the average city $300 more a ton to recycle trash  than it does to bury the garbage.  And in places like Toronto that adds up to millions of dollars lost a year.  As a matter of fact, half the budget of New York City’s parks department is spent on picking up recyclables.

There are three times as many trees in North America today as there were 100 years ago.  Yet newspapers are required to use recycled newsprint, creating far more water pollution than simply making new paper.  For instance, each ton of recycled newsprint produces an extra 5,000 gallons of discharge waste water.  (back)
Are reusable cups and plates better than disposables?  A ceramic mug may seem a more virtuous choice than a cup made of polystyrene, the foam now increasingly banned by local governments;  however, it takes more energy to manufacture that mug (plus each hot water washing thereafter consuming even more of the same).  According to calculations by Martin Hocking, professor of chemistry at the University of Victoria in British Columbia – you would have to use that ceramic mug 1,000 times before it’s energy-consumption-per-use equaled that of using a 1,000 disposable cups instead.

The truth is, modern landfill siting and design features essentially eliminate the potential for problems posed by older landfills.  Today’s landfills are sited where fluids will have great trouble getting through the landfill’s boundaries and into groundwater.  A foundation of several feet of dense clay is laid down on the site and overlaid with thick plastic sheets that have been hot-sealed together.  This layer is then covered by several feel of gravel or sand.  And as the rubbish is laid  down, layers of dirt or other inert materials are used to cover it daily.  Yes, there is some methane gas produced as a by-product of decomposition; which is now drawn off by wells on site, burned and purified, or sold for fuel.  And plenty of greenery is often added to offset the sight and smell.  As an example, Forest Hills, the prestigious club where the U.S. Open tennis tournament is held, sits on a land site of millions of tons of New York City garbage.

The hard fact?  We are not, as forecast, running out of natural resources – for innovation continues to drive the price of commodities down by requiring so much less of their use (like fibre optics instead of copper).

The bottom line?  Thankfully, we will not be recycled (reincarnated) when it comes to the resurrection.  As the Apostle Paul reminds us, we’ll have a brand new body.