In America, recycling is seen as an inherent moral good. It starts early, when little children sing songs along with their favorite television characters about the value of reusing garbage. Later they will focus on recycling in school, and many kids will confront parents not deemed fervent enough in sorting clear from colored glass. As adults, they will regularly trot their yellow bin to the end of the driveway.
When the curbside recycling craze started about a dozen years ago, the case was made that the world was running out of resources and landfills were running out of space. The answer to both problems was to reuse our garbage whenever possible. So Americans were sold on aggressive, even mandatory recycling programs --- but it seems we were really sold a bill of goods.
Recycling paper, for instance, does not save trees. The vast majority of our paper comes from trees grown on farms for that purpose. In fact, there are more trees in the United States today than at any other time in this century. We might just as well "conserve" wheat by not eating bread. Further, the prices of virgin raw materials used to make other commonly recycled goods like plastic, glass and aluminum continue to drop, reflecting the growing abundance of these materials as ever-improving technology makes them easier and cheaper to develop. Often significantly cheaper than the cost of recovering the same material from recycled goods.
Nor are we running out of room for garbage. Professor A. Clark Wiseman, an economist at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., calculated that if Americans continue generating garbage at current rates, it would take 1,000 years before the total refuse pile would fill an area 35 miles square and 100 yards deep. Given today's stringent regulations on landfills, it could then safely be covered over and used for parkland. No it's not practical to create a national trash heap, but considering America's 3 million plus square miles of territory and its vast areas of wilderness, it's clear this is hardly a tall order to fill.
But, some folks are sure to say, shouldn't we still recycle everything we can --- just in case it does some good later?
Not necessarily. First there are the costs involved. Many larger jurisdictions spend millions of dollars a year on their recycling programs. (New York city spends between $50 million and $100 million.) Picking up a ton of recyclables, forget the expense of processing it, can cost three times as much as picking up the same amount of garbage. Though some of the expense may be offset by selling some recovered materials -- frequently municipalities instead have to pay to have useless recycled material taken off their hands -- aggressive curbside recycling programs are almost always significant revenue losers. And that has real consequences now: less money available for better schools, safer roads, more police or improved social services.
Then there's the pollution created by recycling. That's right, pollution. And not just by the trucks transporting the material. As public policy analyst and recycling expert James DeLong has noted, recycling is a manufacturing process. And it can take just as much energy and create just as much pollution and waste -- or even more -- to disassemble something in the recycling process as to assemble it the first time around.
Yes, there are some cases in which some recycling does make economic sense. The problem is in blindly thinking that it always makes sense. Still, the moral imperative for recycling as much as we can continues. Perhaps, as writer John Tierney once noted in a New York Times Magazine piece titled "Recycling is Garbage," "we're performing a rite of atonement for the sin of excess," assuaging our consciences for the unprecedented prosperity and ease of life we enjoy in America.
Well then, maybe the trip
to the end of the driveway has become a sort of religious pilgrimage. But if people
really are determined to feel guilty about waste, they'd be better off feeling
guilty about the waste involved in their recycling.