Is Recycling Worth Doing Or Is It A Waste?

Published June 29, 2003


Tampa Tribune and Times
Tampa, Florida
June 29, 2003
circ. 302,417

Two decades ago the government of Michigan determined that it had a major problem–besides Detroit–and that something had to be done. The state’s roadsides were increasingly defiled by trash, and so the solons in Lansing decided to impose a deposit fee on many bottled goods, believing that if empty bottles were exchanged at the store for money, the volume of litter would be reduced.

It worked, although not without complications for merchants and their customers. Stores selling beverages immediately had to make room for the returned empties, and not all those empties were rinsed out, thus becoming homes for insect life. As for the customers, they often weren’t in the mood to haul bottles back to the store, and great quantities of empty bottles collected in basements and garages.

Fortunately, free enterprise came to the rescue. Teenagers quickly discovered they could generate a little cash by going door to door collecting bottles, and splitting the deposit with householders more than wiling to unload their mounting inventories.

Justifications for the Practice

Heartland Science Director Jay Lehr is a highly sought-after speaker on a wide range of environment topics, from recycling to biotech. He gets a standing ovation every time! If you’d like Lehr to keynote your next meeting, contact Heartland Public Affairs Director Greg Lackner at 312/377-4000, email [email protected].

Although by no means parallel, this situation came to mind after I read an essay by Jay Lehr, science director of The Heartland Institute, a Chicago think tank. Lehr says recycling, such as the program we have in Hillsborough County, is a waste of time and money.

This is a disappointment to all of us conscientious recyclers. We had thought recycling conserves valuable resources, reduces the need for landfill space, and helps the environment.

Lehr disagrees: “Recycling is, in fact, good only for the human psyche. We get a warm and fuzzy feeling when we recycle, even though we are wrong to feel that way.

“We are not running out of, nor will we ever run out of, any of the resources we recycle. We are not cutting down ‘endangered forests’ today to make paper. We plant far more trees than we harvest each year. Wood is in ample supply.

“Similarly, glass is made from silica dioxide–common beach sand–the most abundant mineral in the crust of the Earth. Plastic is derived from petroleum byproducts after fuel is harvested from the raw material. While this supply has some limits, we can now create plastic from plant material grown on farms.”

But don’t we risk running out of landfill space? Lehr says no.

“All the garbage we will generate in the next 10 centuries will require less than 35 square miles to a height of only 300 feet. While people rarely want landfills in their backyards, they can be excellent neighbors, contributing wonderful parklands to our communities. Landfills are no longer a threat to the environment or public health. State-of-the-art landfills, with redundant clay and plastic liners and leachate collection systems, have now replaced all of our unsafe dumps.”

A Better Use of Time

Lehr, who calls himself “a bleeding heart liberal when it comes to the human condition,” insists that recycling is a waste of time, perhaps half a day a month, that could be better used by helping out at a homeless shelter or soup kitchen, or counseling alcoholics or drug addicts, or serving as a volunteer aide in schools.

His words may shine with wisdom. But I’m afraid most people believe their own difficulties provide a sufficient burden in their daily lives, and thus prefer recycling’s emotional lift to diving into sociological problems. No surprise there. A persistent defect of our species is the reluctance to embrace the most fruitful possibilities.

Edwin A. Roberts Jr. is editorial page editor of the Tampa Tribune and Times. His email address is [email protected].