Edwin Decker, "Why Recycling Is a Waste of Money, Time and Energy," San Diego City Beat, January 8, 2013. sdcitybeat.com. Copyright © 2013 San Diego City Beat. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission.
Freelance journalist Edwin Decker is a regular contributor to the City Beat newsweekly in San Diego and host of the popular podcast Sordid Tales.
The idea that recycling is necessary is based on fallacies and faulty premises. First, it is simply untrue that landfill space is filling up; there is currently plenty of room for the waste Americans produce and then still plenty more room for landfill expansion. Recycling also does not save money; curbside recycling costs significantly more than it does to dump waste in a landfill. On balance, recycling isn't even beneficial to the planet because of all the carbon-intensive resources—such as garbage trucks and industrial recycling plants—that are used to facilitate the process from start to finish. Recycling is a feel-good bandwagon that simply isn't worth it.
As a fence-sitting political independent, I've taken a lot of grief over the years from my mostly Democratic friends who say it's a copout to avoid picking a side. And while I adore the progressive attitude of the Democratic Party, celebrate its alliance with intellectualism and get all weepy over its institutional empathy for the underdog, the truth is, liberalism—when left unchecked—will go from zero to shitty in 60 seconds.
When a problem is identified, liberals tend to lurch into action. This is a noble (yet dangerous) instinct, and woe be the sorry sap who gets in the way of the Rebel-beral with a Cause. Indeed, I can think of no better example than curbside recycling.
The reasons for recycling, we're told, is that it's good for the environment and saves money and we're running out of landfill space. And anyone who doesn't agree with this must hate the planet and want to kill Bambi. Well color me a Bambivore, because it's all deer shit.
As for the other proposed reasons for recycling, that it saves money and is good for the environment, there are a lot of smart, informed people who say that it does neither.
For the most part, the hysteria over diminishing landfill space erupted in 1989 when J. Winston Porter, then an administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), wrote a report saying that America was running out of places to put its trash. Porter's egregiously incorrect conclusion was based on the fact that nearly 3,000 landfills had shut down between 1982 and 1987. However, had he performed even the slightest bit of research, he'd have learned that, while the number of landfills had decreased, the size of each of the remaining fills had increased—by, on average, 20 times.
The Landfill-Space Fallacy
In a phone interview, Jim Thompson, president of the Waste Business Journal, explained that in the early '80s, most of the country's 6,000 or 7,000 landfills were run by small, unregulated municipalities. Many of these facilities had to shut down due to increasing restrictions: Landfills may not be located near groundwater, the lining system must be a multilayered combination of impermeable clay, gravel, sheeting and drainage; the methane gas must be either flared off or recycled periodically. These regulations forced many of the smaller operations out of business, and they were replaced by corporate "mega-landfills" that could afford all the retrofits and other legal requirements. The point is, there was, and is, no shortage of landfill space, and even Porter—now president of the Waste Policy Center, a consultancy firm for businesses and government agencies—has backed away from that claim.
As for the other proposed reasons for recycling, that it saves money and is good for the environment, there are a lot of smart, informed people who say that it does neither. Using data provided by Franklin Associates (an EPA-sanctioned waste consulting firm), Daniel K. Benjamin (author of The 8 Great Myths of Recycling) reported that "overall curbside recycling costs run between 35 and 55 percent higher than the [landfill] option."
Even the voraciously pro-curbside-recycling Porter reported (on the "Recycling" episode of the Showtime series, Bullshit!) that it costs local governments an average of $150 per ton to recycle, but only $50 or $60 a ton to dump it in a landfill.
Worth the Price?
But, hey, if it's good for the planet, it's worth the price, right? Well, sure, it would be—if it weren't that the whole recycling operation is, in itself, just another pumping, smoking, leaking, spewing, spilling, poisoning, polluting mega-machine. Forget about all those extra, specialized recycling trucks (which use more fuel and emit more carbon dioxide); forget about all the leaflets and other mailing materials used to inform the public about correct recycling behavior; forget about the added manpower and its carbon footprint—recycling plants pollute as much as any manufacturing plant, maybe worse because they use acids, colorants, stabilizers, retardants and lubricants during processing, causing a runoff sludge more noxious than [grunge rocker] Courtney Love's radioactive douchebag magma.
Now, it could be argued, as Jim Thompson did, that recycling could be viable someday and may not be a waste of time and money. Perhaps. Certainly reasonable minds can disagree. My point is: Why were the pros and cons not thoroughly discussed before the blue bins started showing up? Why didn't we listen to The Borg [from Star Trek] when they said, "Recycling is futile"? They should know. They're The Borg!
The whole thing reminds me of the No Nukes campaign of the 1970s. Somehow we were led to believe that nuclear power and nuclear bombs posed the same threat. If you disagreed, you were branded a lover of radiation sickness. So they stopped building nuclear plants. However, had an intelligent discussion played out at the time, we'd have learned that nuclear power is the safest, most efficient and most environmentally friendly of all the energy options, and if we continued making newer and better nuclear plants back then, we might not be having so many energy problems today.
This is why I can't fully sign on to the liberal worldview. This is why, for all its buffoonery and bigotry, we still need conservatism to keep progressivism on a leash. This is why I remain, ever so proudly, in the middle, where rational people realize the world is too complex to see problems through partisan eyes.