John Tierney in NY Times: Recycling was ‘garbage’ in 1996, it’s still that way today, and the future looks even worse
In 1996, New York Times science columnist John Tierney wrote an article that appeared in the New York Times Magazine about compulsory recycling titled “Recycling is Garbage.” Tierney’s controversial argument in that article can be summarized as follows: Recycling may be the most wasteful activity in modern America. Tierney wrote, “Rinsing out tuna cans and tying up newspapers may make you feel virtuous, but it’s a waste of time and money, a waste of human and natural resources. Americans 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.” Now you can understand why Tierney’s recycling article set the all-time record for the greatest volume of hate mail ever recorded in the history of the New York Times Magazine.
Because it was one of the first and most effective challenges to the naive, pro-recycling propaganda that has been used to successfully brainwash millions of American school children for the last quarter century, I’ve featured John Tierney’s classic recycling article on CD many times over the years (especially around the “green holy days” known as “Earth Day” and “America Recycles Day”), including here, here, here, and here.
It’s been almost 20 years since John Tierney taught us that “recycling is garbage.” Fortunately, he has just provided a recycling update in today’s New York Times with a new article titled “The Reign of Recycling.” So, what has happened over the last two decades? According to Tierney, “While it’s true that the recycling message religion has reached more people converts than ever, when it comes to the bottom line, both economically and environmentally, not much has changed at all.” And what about recycling’s future? It “looks even worse,” says Tierney.
Here’s a condensed version of Tierney’s new article on recycling, with my section titles and emphasis:
1. Background. In 1996, I wrote a long article for The New York Times Magazine (“Recycling is Garbage”) arguing that the recycling process as we carried it out was wasteful. I presented plenty of evidence that recycling was costly and ineffectual, but its defenders said that it was unfair to rush to judgment. Noting that the modern recycling movement had really just begun just a few years earlier, they predicted it would flourish as the industry matured and the public learned how to recycle properly. So, what’s happened since then? While it’s true that the recycling message has reached more people than ever, when it comes to the bottom line, both economically and environmentally, not much has changed at all.
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. The future for recycling looks even worse. 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.
2. Costs vs. Benefits of Recycling. 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.
They probably don’t know, for instance, that to reduce carbon emissions, you’ll accomplish a lot more by sorting paper and aluminum cans than by worrying about yogurt containers and half-eaten slices of pizza. Most people also assume that recycling plastic bottles must be doing lots for the planet. They’ve been encouraged by the EPA, which assures the public that recycling plastic results in less carbon being released into the atmosphere.
But how much difference does it make? Here’s some perspective: 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. If you sit in business- or first-class, where each passenger takes up more space, it could be more like 100,000.
Even those statistics might be misleading. 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. That single omission can make a big difference. If you wash plastic in water that was heated by coal-derived electricity, then the net effect of your recycling could be more carbon in the atmosphere.
3. Recycling and Landfills. One of the original goals of the recycling movement was to avert a supposed crisis because there was no room left in the nation’s landfills. But that media-inspired fear was never realistic in a country with so much open space. In reporting the 1996 article I found that 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. And that tiny amount of land wouldn’t be lost forever, because landfills are typically covered with grass and converted to parkland, like the Freshkills Park being created on Staten Island. The United States Open tennis tournament is played on the site of an old landfill — and one that never had the linings and other environmental safeguards required today.
Though most cities shun landfills, they have been welcomed in rural communities that reap large economic benefits (and have plenty of greenery to buffer residents from the sights and smells). Consequently, the great landfill shortage has not arrived, and neither have the shortages of raw materials that were supposed to make recycling profitable.
4. Recycling Economics. As a business, recycling is on the wrong side of two long-term global economic trends. For centuries, the real cost of labor has been increasing while the real cost of raw materials has been declining. That’s why we can afford to buy so much more stuff than our ancestors could. As a labor-intensive activity, recycling is an increasingly expensive way to produce materials that are less and less valuable. Recyclers have tried to improve the economics by automating the sorting process, but they’ve been frustrated by politicians eager to increase recycling rates by adding new materials of little value. The more types of trash that are recycled, the more difficult it becomes to sort the valuable from the worthless.
In New York City, the net cost of recycling a ton of trash is now $300 more than it would cost to bury the trash instead. That adds up to millions of extra dollars per year — about half the budget of the parks department — that New Yorkers are spending for the privilege of recycling. That money could buy far more valuable benefits, including more significant reductions in greenhouse emissions.
5. Recycling as a Religion. Religious rituals don’t need any practical justification for the believers who perform them voluntarily. But many recyclers want more than just the freedom to practice their religion. They want to make these rituals mandatory for everyone else, too, with stiff fines for sinners who don’t sort properly. Seattle has become so aggressive that the city is being sued by residents who maintain that the inspectors rooting through their trash are violating their constitutional right to privacy.
It would take legions of garbage police to enforce a zero-waste society, but true believers insist that’s the future. When Mayor de Blasio promised to eliminate garbage in New York, he said it was “ludicrous” and “outdated” to keep sending garbage to landfills. Recycling, he declared, was the only way for New York to become “a truly sustainable city.”
But cities have been burying garbage for thousands of years, and it’s still the easiest and cheapest solution for trash. The recycling movement is floundering, and its survival depends on continual subsidies, sermons and policing. How can you build a sustainable city with a strategy that can’t even sustain itself?
Bottom Line: Economist Steven Landsburg wrote that “Naive environmentalism is a force-fed potpourri of myth, superstition, and ritual that has much in common with the least reputable varieties of religious Fundamentalism. The antidote to bad religion is good science. The antidote to astrology is the scientific method, the antidote to naive creationism is evolutionary biology, and the antidote to naive environmentalism is economics.” Kudos to John Tierney for his new article that provides another effective economic antidote to the naive environmentalist practice known as recycling.
Bonus Video. In the Penn and Teller video below on recycling, they refer to John Tierney’s 1996 NYT article, and further explain why recycling is an activity that involves “feeling good for no reason.”