Culture Beat / June 6, 2018

Recycling: Not All It’s Cracked Up to Be

The popular practice is not as environmentally friendly as many would believe.

In an era when concern for the environment is widely viewed as the truest form of “spiritual” and moral living, it has become anathema to question the validity of the tenets of this secular religion. This public attitude largely explains why many dubious practices that have been wrapped up in the altruistic guise of “saving the environment” receive little critical analysis. One prime example of this phenomenon is the recycling movement. The obvious moral principle of stewardship underlying the concept of recycling is indeed commendable. But a book should not be judged by its cover, and recycling in practice is neither economically nor environmentally all that it’s cracked up to be.

Much of the energy and time families and individuals put into separating their garbage is often for naught, as much of the separated recyclables actually end up in the same landfill as other garbage. There are several reasons for this.

First, until recently China imported large quantities of America’s recyclables. This year, China has essentially shut down most recycling imports, which has had a huge impact as the U.S. exported nearly a third of all recyclables. Second, not all plastics, which make up the bulk of items separated for recycling, are recyclable. Third, lower oil prices over the last few years have effectively priced out the economic value of recycling. It’s just not cost effective. And finally, the impact of recycling may actually prove to have an overall negative impact on the environment.

John Tierney points out in a New York Times article that the impact of washing plastics before recycling, coupled with trucking emissions for moving to recycling facilities, could end up adding to green house gasses. Tierney further notes that “all the trash generated by Americans for the next 1,000 years would fit on one-tenth of 1 percent of the land available for grazing.” He adds, “And any tiny amount of land wouldn’t be lost forever, because landfills are typically covered with grass and converted to parkland, like the Freshkills Park being created on Staten Island. The United States Open tennis tournament is played on the site of an old landfill — and one that never had the linings and other environmental safeguards required today.”

In short, like much “settled science” these days, the justification for recycling is just being, well, recycled.

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