Reconsidering the Virtues of Recycling

Published September 26, 2019

Proposed: Most people are inherently good and want to do good things. That, I sincerely believe, is as true of the vast majority of my fellow citizens who both agree or disagree with some or all of my views.

If one accepts that proposition—that most all of us everyday Joes and Jos ultimately are trying to make this a better world—then the source of our disagreements is not about motivation, its about observation. We see the world differently. How and why we see the world differently is the crux of the problem.

Let’s consider one example to explore further: the virtues of recycling.

It has become a given in modern America that recycling on the household level is a vital part of maintaining a clean planet. For many of us, there are few greater moral triumphs than being able to wheel an overflowing recycling bin to the curb on collection day, perhaps accompanied by one small bag of waste destined to suffer shameful burial in a landfill.

We know this is a good thing, we know it’s an important thing, because we have been told for years—decades—by leaders, public interest groups, the mainstream media, etc. that if we aren’t diligent about household recycling, Mother Earth will suffer a quick and painful death.

It’s a great story. It’s a story that creates two clear pathways, one which is about selfish and ultimately self-destructive behavior, and the other about selfless and ultimately universally beneficial behavior. Most people are inherently good and want to do good things. Given such a choice, is there any doubt what choice they will make?

But there is a problem with the story and thus with the choice the story leads us to. The problem is that the story is largely, almost completely, just that—a story. The supposed environmental crisis that necessitates household recycling doesn’t, and never has, existed. The supposed environmental benefits of household recycling, with a few exceptions, don’t and never have existed.

Here’s the truth:

  • We’re not running out of landfills and it’s pretty much impossible that we ever could. The number of landfills in the United States has dropped during the last 50 years, but the aggregate amount of landfill area has stayed pretty much consistent. That reflects the market’s move from numerous, smaller local landfills in urban areas to more remote “mega-fills” built in more rural settings that serve much larger areas. These modern landfills are far better controlled and monitored than their baby cousins, which is a very good thing.
  • We’re not running out space for landfills and it’s pretty much impossible that we ever could. Last time I ran the numbers, the total acreage of all active landfills in the United States would fit inside one average-sized county in my home state of Illinois. Nationwide, we devote far more area to golf courses than we do to landfills. Burying garbage is a flea bite to planet Earth, nothing more.
  • There are two economically viable means of recycling available to typical Americans today. One is recycling of aluminum, because it costs less to make aluminum products with recycled aluminum than it does to make the same product starting with mined aluminum ore, aka: bauxite. The other is recycling your used automobile. Your clunker will be shredded on a massive industrial scale at scrapyards equipped with the equipment designed to smash it up, separate the materials recovered, and ship those materials out to buyers as efficiently as humanly possible. The reason so many charitable organizations want your used car is because it has so much recycling value.
  • Beyond aluminum and old cars, most of what you toss in the recycle bin won’t be recycled. Used glass has virtually no value in the real world. Neither does the majority of used plastic. Some used paper and particularly used cardboard have some value, but there’s a finite limit to the number of times one can effectively recycle a paper product. Fortunately, there’s no finite limit to the number of trees we can grow, so this isn’t much of a problem.
  • There’s no point in rinsing out anything you toss into the recycle bin. If you choose to rinse supposed recyclables because you want to keep critters and bugs away, have at it. If you think that you have to do so to make your trash recyclable, please stop—it’s pointless. If your scrap aluminum is recycled, it will be melted in a furnace and that furnace will kill bacteria far more effectively than your tap water. If your scrap glass is somehow recycled, the same logic applies. If your scrap paper product is recycled, it will eventually hit a bleach bath that will destroy any contaminant. The folks who use recycled materials never, ever treat those materials as if they are “clean.” It would be irresponsible to do so. In industry, every raw material is assumed to be contaminated and is treated as such.

I’m not encouraging you to ignore the recycle bin your municipality or village has so kindly provided you, dear reader. Fill it up to your heart’s content! My hope is that you may better understand the real value of those efforts. As they say, knowledge is power.

[Originally Published at The Epoch Times]