Recycling: a cult of spurious virtue 10

Recycling is largely a waste of time, money, and energy.

Apart from metals and one or two other things, nothing is worth recycling.

Our guess is that some people like doing it because it makes them feel good, which is nice for them.

But what if recycling is in most cases worse than useless?

In a 2013 article, ListVerse set out 10 ways in which recycling positively hurts the environment. We paraphrase the list:

Contamination: if there are impurities or toxins on the original material—say lead paint from an aluminum spray can—they’ll usually make it through the recycling process and end up buried in the new product, which might turn out to be, say, a soda can. The worst part is that sometimes we don’t know when something’s contaminated—until it’s too late. For example, we’re just realizing that hundreds of buildings in Taiwan made from recycled steel have been giving people gamma radiation poisoning for the past twelve years.

The recycling process itself produces a lot of pollutants—from the exhaust billowing out of recycling trucks to energy used at recycling plants. In 2009 there were about 179,000 waste collection vehicles on the road—that’s both recycling and garbage collection. The exhaust from each one of those vehicles contains over three dozen airborne toxins. Both garbage trucks and recycling trucks run on fossil fuels, and they both produce exhaust. By adding more trucks to the fleet, no matter what their purpose, we’re increasing air pollution. And that’s not even considering the recycling facilities. One recycling plant in Washington state produces more toxic emissions than any other factory in the region. And the next three biggest polluters in the area? Yeah, they’re also recycling plants.

When paper is recycled, it’s all mixed together into a pulp. That pulp is washed, cleaned, and then pressed into new paper sheets. During that process, wastes like paper fibers, inks, cleaning chemicals, and dyes are filtered out into one giant pudding known as paper sludge. The sludge is then either burned or sent to a landfill, where it can leach dozens of toxic chemicals and heavy metals into groundwater. Eighty-seven percent of new paper now comes from trees that are raised for the sole purpose of paper production. The US harvests about fifteen million acres of forest each year, but they’re planting twenty-two million – every year we have seven million more acres of forest. More recycling will actually reduce the demand for those forests.

There are about seven types of plastic that you’ll find in day to day life, and only two of them are recyclable. Anything else placed in a recycling bin will be collected, processed, and sorted, and then thrown straight into a landfill. Even trying to recycle some things—for example the plastic that electronics are packaged in—wastes all those resources.  Take plastic shopping bags as an example of the waste of recycling. It costs $4,000 to recycle one ton of plastic bags, but a ton of recycled bags only sells for $32! As a result, about 300,000 tons of them end up in a landfill every year.

It would seem to make sense to try to recycle used oil back into something useful. But more often than not, recycling creates even more toxic chemicals in the process. Most small scale oil treatment centers use something known as the acid-clay process. This gets impurities out of the oil, but leaves you with a toxic sludge containing all of those impurities, plus dangerous chemicals like hydrochloric acid. So what do they do with that toxic waste? They burn it, sending chemicals like nitric oxide and sulfur dioxide into the air. And that’s pretty much the official method, even though it’s about as effective at fighting pollution as saving a person from drowning by throwing them in a lake.

Even the recycling of metals is not always the economic good it would seem to be:

Demand for most recyclable products is growing way too fast to keep up with anything that recycling can—at the moment—provide. Aluminum is especially difficult, since demand for it grows at nearly ten percent every year. That means we’re still going to mine for new aluminum, especially since recycled aluminum isn’t suitable for certain things. For example, recycled soda cans can’t give you the quality you need to build an airplane, or even to use in electronic circuits. Even if the cans go back to being cans, it’s not enough. Here’s some math: The average American drinks 2.5 cans of soda per day. That’s about 778 million cans. If 100,000 cans are recycled every minute (they are), we’re still about 600 million cans short. And that’s just in one day.

And then there’s glass, which comes from sand, the most abundant resource on the planet. The process for recycling glass is more detrimental than the process for creating virgin glass.

One of the recent trends in recycling right now is all-in-one recycling. All the paper, plastic, glass, and metal waste goes into one recycle bin, which is sorted at the factory. The argument is that it requires fewer trucks to pick it all up. But the trade off is even worse—all that extra sorting requires millions of dollars worth of new equipment, and the pollution is just transferred over to the factories that have to build it.

And Daniel J. Mitchell, a Cato Institute libertarian with whom we sometimes – as now – agree, writes (in part) at Townhall Finance:

While it’s very good to have a clean environment, many environmentalists don’t understand cost-benefit analysis. As such, they make our lives less pleasant – inferior light bulbs, substandard toilets, inadequate washing machines, crummy dishwashers, dribbling showers, and dysfunctional gas cans – for little if any benefit. We can add recycling to that list.

To be sure, all the hassle and time of sorting our garbage might be an acceptable cost if something was being achieved. Unfortunately that’s not the case. Not even close.

For recycling to be a socially commendable activity, it has to pass one of two tests: the profit test, or the net environmental-savings test. If something passes the profit test, it’s likely already being done. People are already recycling gold or other commodities from the waste stream, if the costs of doing so are less than the amount for which the resource can be sold.

The real question arises with mandatory recycling programs — people recycle because they will be fined if they don’t, not because they expect to make money. If you add up the time being wasted on recycling rituals, it’s even more expensive to ask each household to do it. The difference is that this is an implicit tax, a donation required of citizens, and doesn’t cost money from the public budget. But time is the least renewable of all resources. For recycling to make any sense, it must cost less to dispose of recycled material than to put the stuff in a landfill. But we have plenty of landfill space, in most of the country. And much of the heaviest material we want to recycle, particularly glass, is chemically inert and will not decompose in a landfill. Landfilling glass does no environmental harm.

So, is [any] recycling useful?  Aluminum cans and corrugated cardboard, if they can be collected clean and at scale, are highly recyclable. But for most other things, recycling harms the environment. If you care about the environment, you should put your bottles and other glass in the regular garbage, every time.

Hundreds of cities have repealed recycling mandates because they simply don’t make sense. … It’s time to admit the recycling mania is a giant placebo. It makes people feel good, but the idea that it improves the condition of humans or the planet is highly dubious.

Recycling may be the most wasteful activity in modern America: a waste of time and money, a waste of human and natural resources. Americans became racked with garbage guilt. … Politicians across the country enacted laws mandating recycling and setting arbitrary goals typically requiring that at least 40 percent of trash be recycled, often even more — 50 percent in New York and California, 60 percent in New Jersey, 70 percent in Rhode Island. The Federal Government and dozens of states passed laws that required public agencies, newspapers and other companies to purchase recycled materials.

America today has a good deal more landfill space available than it did 10 years ago. … 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 millennial landfill would fit on one-tenth of 1 percent of the range land now available for grazing in the continental United States.

Many experts and public officials acknowledge that America could simply bury its garbage, but they object to this option because it diverts trash from recycling programs. Recycling, which was originally justified as the only solution to a desperate national problem, has become a goal in itself. The leaders of the recycling movement raise money and attract new members through their campaigns to outlaw “waste” and prevent landfills from opening. They get financing from public and private sources (including the recycling industry) to research and promote recycling. By turning garbage into a political issue, environmentalists have created jobs for themselves as lawyers, lobbyists, researchers, educators and moral guardians.

The bottom line is that most recycling programs impose a fiscal and personal cost on people for very meager environmental benefits. Indeed, the benefits are often negative once indirect costs are added to the equation.

We rest our case.

Posted under Economics by Jillian Becker on Friday, September 6, 2019

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