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November 04, 2004

"Recycling is garbage" by John Tierney (1996)

John Tierney's well-crafted ``Recycling Is Garbage," New York Times Magazine, June 30, 1996, states the case against recycling very well. Recycling can, of course, be a good idea, but only when it is profitable. City programs lose money, and when people spend time sorting garbage, it is a waste of resources, not thrift. If you simply throw all your recyclables in one garbage can and your other garbage in another, private labor costs are small, but the city still must pay extra. If you must sort carefully, home labor costs become the biggest part of the cost.

Here are extensive excerpts, reformatted by me and without ellipses, for the most part:

The simplest and cheapest option is usually to bury garbage in an environmentally safe landfill.

Since there's no shortage of landfill space there's no reason to make recycling a legal or moral imperative.

Mandatory recycling programs offer mainly short-term benefits to a few groups -- politicians, public relations consultants, environmental organizations, waste-handling corporations -- while diverting money from genuine social and environmental problems.

Recycling may be the most wasteful activity in modern America: a waste of time and money, a waste of human and natural resources.

[of Charles City Council, which imports New York City garbage to its landfill] ... thanks to its new landfill, the county has lower taxes, better-paid teachers and splendid schools. The landfill's private operator, the Chambers Development Company, pays Charles City County fees totaling $3 million a year -- as much as the county takes in from all its property taxes. The landfill has created jobs, as have the new businesses that were attracted by the lower taxes and new schools. The 80-acre public-school campus has three buildings with central air conditioning and fiber-optic cabling. The library has 10,000 books, laser disks and CD- ROM's; every classroom in the elementary school has a telephone and a computer. The new auditorium has been used by visiting orchestras and dance companies, which previously had no place to perform in the county.

Why should New Yorkers spend extra money to recycle so they can avoid this mutually beneficial transaction?

Why make harried parents feel guilty about takeout food?

Why train children to be garbage-sorters?

Why force the Bridges school to spend money on a recycling program when it still doesn't have a computer in the science classroom?

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 banned by ecologically conscious local governments. But it takes much more energy to manufacture the mug, and then each washing consumes more energy (not to mention water). According to calculations by Martin Hocking, a chemist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, you would have to use the mug 1,000 times before its energy-consumption-per-use is equal to the cup. (If the mug breaks after your 900th coffee, you would have been better off using 900 polystyrene cups.)

When consumers follow their preferences, they are guided by the simplest, and often the best, measure of a product's environmental impact: its price.

Polystyrene cups are cheap because they require so little energy and material to manufacture -- without reading a chemist's analysis, you could deduce from the cup's low price that it's an efficient use of natural resources. Similarly, the prices paid for scrap materials are a measure of their environmental value as recyclables. Scrap aluminum fetches a high price because recycling it consumes so much less energy than manufacturing new aluminum. The low price paid for scrap tinted glass tells you that you won't be conserving valuable resources by recycling it. While price is hardly a perfect measure of environmental impact, especially in countries where manufacturers are free to pollute, an American product's price usually reflects the cost of complying with strict environmental regulations.

Posted by erasmuse at November 4, 2004 03:22 PM

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Hey Eric,

Your url was a little messed up, it should be:


I read this article a few years ago. To me, the most interesting part was this:

A. Clark Wiseman, an economist at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., has calculated that if Americans keep generating garbage at current rates for 1,000 years, and if all their garbage is put in a landfill 100 yards deep, by the year 3000 this national garbage heap will fill a square piece of land 35 miles on each side. This doesn't seem a huge imposition in a country the size of America. The garbage would occupy only 5 percent of the area needed for the national array of solar panels proposed by environmentalists. The millennial landfill would fit on one-tenth of 1 percent of the range land now available for grazing in the continental United States. And if it still pains you to think of depriving posterity of that 35-mile square, remember that the loss will be only temporary. Eventually, like previous landfills, the mounds of trash will be covered with grass and become a minuscule addition to the nation's 150,000 square miles of parkland.

Posted by: Keith at November 6, 2004 09:19 PM

Thanks. I had a linebreak in by mistake, but have now fixed it.

Posted by: Eric Rasmusen at November 7, 2004 03:43 AM

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