If you’re worried about the planet, please make sure your trash is buried in a landfill; there’s plenty of space available.
On the surface, the phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle” may seem like a sensible call to action for those who want to limit carbon emissions or reduce the amount of waste left behind for future generations.
The reality, however, is that the costs associated with the process of recycling almost always outweigh the benefits.
Even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says it only makes sense economically and environmentally to recycle about 35 percent of discarded materials. Among those materials are paper and aluminum cans, according to the agency.
Recycling one ton of paper or aluminum cans, the agency says, can save about 3 tons of carbon dioxide emissions over producing those materials anew.
But not so fast.
Paper mills pay for the trees they process. If it was cost-effective to recycle scrap paper, producers would be beating down your door to buy it. But they aren’t.
That means it’s more expensive and more resource-intensive to recycle old paper than to cut and pulp pine trees and then replant seedlings for processing when mature.
Plastic provides another cautionary tale. Given the recent dramatic decline in crude oil prices, it is now cheaper to make a new plastic container than to recycle an old one.
Even if that were not true, the EPA says that recycling a ton of plastic saves only about a ton of carbon dioxide. However, that estimate doesn’t take into account the water most consumers use to rinse their plastic containers before they put them into a recycling bin.
New York Times science columnist John Tierney recently wrote, citing the work of author Chris Goodall, “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.”
Glass is an even worse recyclable. To reduce greenhouse gas emissions by one ton, you have to recycle three tons of glass. If one includes the cost of collecting glass waste in small quantities from neighborhoods, and the pollution produced by the collection trucks and the recycling process itself, glass recycling creates more greenhouse gas emissions and is more expensive than making new glass, which comes primarily from sand, an abundant raw material.
No wonder many municipalities across the country continue to pick up glass in recycling trucks only to dump it at the local landfill.
Why the charade? Because “reduce, reuse, recycle” is an emotional mantra, not reasonable environmental policy, and years of indoctrination have left most Americans blind to the actual evidence surrounding recycling programs.
By sending an extra fleet of trucks around town once a week, adherents of the recycling religion actually are undermining their stated goal of protecting the environment.
It doesn’t help that the rise of the recycling movement has created a powerful interest group of recyclers who lobby politicians to keep things the way they are.
More rational environmental policies would consider the costs and benefits of recycling programs and scrap those that are wasteful and harmful to the environment.
If recycling were truly cost-effective, private companies would be lined up at your doorstep to buy your trash. Don’t look now because they’re not there.
The true recycling test is whether someone is willing to pay you to sort and save your trash. If they’re not, what you’ve been told about recycling in the past is probably just garbage.
William F. Shughart II is professor in public choice at Utah State University’s Huntsman School of Business.