Recycling: It’s a bad idea in New York

Published May 1, 2002

New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, desperate to dig the city out of a $4.8-billion deficit, caused a minor uproar recently by recommending the elimination of the city’s extravagant recycling program. In doing so, he ripped away the veil on one of the biggest boondoggles of recent times.

Despite flowery promises and earnest intentions, mandatory municipal recycling programs across the United States have proven an expensive economic and environmental flop. Little sustains this odd brand of civic religion beyond the quasi-religious devotion of the Green faithful.

While environmentalists argue recycling was never about saving money, that’s little more than revisionist history. Over the past decade or two, you couldn’t swing a dead cat within the halls of government without hitting some well-meaning activist carrying on about the economic gains that would accrue to those who mined our garbage for valuable resources rather than bury them in some landfill. New York is but the latest of a growing number of cities that have found the cost of recycling garbage is far, far greater than the costs of simply dumping it.

Prices tell the truth

And therein lies an important but overlooked point. Prices are reflections of relative scarcity. Things that have high prices are relatively scarce, and things that have low prices are relatively abundant.

If it costs X to deliver newly manufactured plastic to the market, for example, but it costs 10X to deliver reused plastic to the market, we can conclude the resources required to recycle plastic are 10 times more scarce than the resources required to make plastic from scratch. And because recycling is supposed to be about the conservation of resources, mandating recycling under those circumstances will do more harm than good.

If the wood, sand, or various metals we’re supposedly rescuing via recycling were actually in danger of running out, they have a funny way of showing it. Prices for wood and metals are falling — not rising — and have done so for over a century. The same holds true for energy (something else that is supposedly conserved through recycling).

Moreover, it’s the energy costs associated with recycling—the additional collection services, shipping costs, and industrial processing necessary to tear apart a newspaper, for instance, into reusable material—that contribute to its high costs.

Landfill space plentiful, safe

Likewise baseless is the worry that we’re running out of landfill space. If we need more, we can build more. There’s plenty of land to go around. Economist Clark Wiseman calculates that a single landfill 15 miles square could handle 1,000 years’ worth of our present waste disposal needs.

Nor should we be worried much about the environmental problems associated with landfills. Today’s landfills are super high-tech tombs; little gets in and little comes out. U.S. government regulations now ensure that landfills cause only one additional cancer risk every 13 years. And that’s assuming worst-case scenarios and assumptions that, according to most risk assessment specialists, probably overestimate the actual risk by 100 to 1,000 times the actual risk. Given the state-of-the-art technology required of modern waste disposal facilities, the environmental health risks are effectively zero.

In fact, recycling is almost certainly worse for the environment than landfilling. After all, the process of extracting usable raw material from a manufactured product is an industrial activity every bit as involved as the process of combining various raw materials to manufacture a product in the first place. Both processes are energy and chemically intensive. And both create waste.

Recycling 100 tons of old newsprint, for instance, generates tons of toxic waste. Is this consequential? Sure. The Environmental Protection Agency reported some years ago that 13 of America’s 50 worst Superfund sites are or were recycling facilities.

If it makes sense, subsidies aren’t needed

Finally, we’re constantly told recycling creates jobs. But let’s face it: These are miserable jobs at miserable wages, and we’ve got plenty of those. Moreover, the argument neglects the jobs that aren’t being created because New York City is taking $57 million a year out of the economy (actually, about $103 million accounting for the deadweight losses associated with the tax system) to pay for this make-work labor.

Banning farm machinery would create a lot of jobs too, but nobody in their right mind would advocate it. Why, then, do we entertain recycling’s brand of that same nonsense?

When recycling makes economic sense, government doesn’t have to mandate it or subsidize it. Somebody in the private sector will be happy to pay you for your garbage or, alternatively, charge you less for recycling services than for landfilling services. If people want to recycle regardless—simply because it makes them feel better about themselves—that’s their right. But let them spend their own time and money to do it.

Jerry Taylor is director of natural resource studies at the Cato Institute.