November 3, 2022

Greenpeace: Recycling Plastics Doesn’t Work

Better late than never, the environmental activist organization comes to a welcome conclusion.

It was around five years ago when we stopped dragging that green rectangular bin of “recyclables” down to the curb each week — and stopped paying extra for the privilege of doing so.

For years, we’d painstakingly recycled our papers, plastics, glass, and metals because we thought our behavior was, if only in some small way, good for the environment. Who knew it wasn’t?

John Tierney, for one. He knew it back in 1996. That was the year Tierney, a New York Times science reporter, wrote a landmark piece titled “Recycling Is Garbage.” Lucky for all of us that he did so then, because today’s New York Times wouldn’t dare commission such a contrarian piece. As Tierney wrote then:

Believing that there was no more room in landfills, Americans concluded that recycling was their only option. Their intentions were good and their conclusions seemed plausible. Recycling does sometimes makes sense — for some materials in some places at some times. But the simplest and cheapest option is usually to bury garbage in an environmentally safe landfill. And since there’s no shortage of landfill space … there’s no reason to make recycling a legal or moral imperative.

Tierney spent three decades with the Times, but these days he works for a far more reputable organization, City Journal, where he’s a contributing editor. Recently he revisited the topic of recycling, specifically the better-late-than-never realization of a hard-left environmental activist group that recycling of plastics doesn’t make sense. He writes:

This has been obvious for decades to anyone who crunched the numbers, but the fantasy of recycling plastic proved irresistible to generations of environmentalists and politicians. They preached it to children, mandated it for adults, and bludgeoned municipalities and virtue-signaling corporations into wasting vast sums — probably hundreds of billions of dollars worldwide — on an enterprise that has been harmful to the environment as well as to humanity.

Now Greenpeace has seen the light, or at least a glimmer of rationality. The group has issued a report accompanied by a press release headlined, “Plastic Recycling Is a Dead-End Street — Year After Year, Plastic Recycling Declines Even as Plastic Waste Increases.”

The Greenpeace report goes on to list why plastic recycling has been such a miserable failure:

  • Plastics are extremely difficult to collect
  • They’re virtually impossible to sort
  • They’re environmentally harmful to reprocess
  • They’re often made of and contaminated by toxic materials
  • They’re not economical to recycle

So recycling plastics is inefficient, environmentally harmful, and costly — and by “costly,” we mean that recycling a ton of plastic in New York City costs at least six times more than sending it to a landfill. But other than that, it’s a swell idea.

“Greenpeace could have added a sixth reason,” writes Tierney. “Forcing people to sort and rinse their plastic garbage is a waste of everyone’s time. But then, making life more pleasant for humans has never been high on the green agenda.”

Still, the coming-around of Greenpeace is good news, no? Well, yes and no. That such an influential environmental organization has been mugged by recycling reality is indeed a welcome development, but Greenpeace still has a long way to go. As Tierney notes, “The group’s overall policy remains delusional — the report proposes a far more harmful alternative to recycling — but it’s nonetheless encouraging to see environmentalists put aside their obsessions long enough to contemplate reality.”

Being on the Left means never having to say you’re sorry, and, true to form, Greenpeace is making no apologies for having helped impose such an onerous practice on the citizenry for all these many years. The group’s new strategy, as Tierney reports, is even worse: “It proposes finally to ‘end the age of plastic’ by ‘phasing out single-use plastics’ through a ‘Global Plastics Treaty.’”

This scheme sounds like it ought to be part of The Great Reset, and perhaps it will be. But it won’t end well. We know this because a smaller-scale plastic phase-out has proven harmful to both people and the environment: the ban on single-use plastic bags. Consider:

Banning single-use plastic grocery bags has added carbon to the atmosphere by forcing shoppers to use heavier paper bags and tote bags that require much more energy to manufacture and transport. The paper and cotton bags also take up more space in landfills and produce more greenhouse emissions as they decompose. The tote bags aren’t reused nearly often enough to offset their initial carbon footprint, and they’re breeding grounds for bacteria and viruses because they’re rarely washed properly. Researchers have repeatedly found these bags to be responsible for gastrointestinal infections, but the warnings got little attention until the Covid pandemic suddenly revived respect for disposable products.

Clearly, certain types of recycling are still very much worthwhile. Aluminum, for example, has considerable mining and deforestation and manufacturing costs, and so it makes good sense both environmentally and economically to recycle it.

Ultimately, though, it seems to us that the recycling question comes back to what the great Thomas Sowell has called the conservative premise: “Man is flawed from Day One,” he said, “and there are no solutions, only trade-offs. And whatever you do to deal with one of man’s flaws, it creates another problem. But you try to get the best trade-off you can get, and that’s all you can hope for.”

Where plastics are concerned, though, the consensus seems clear: To the landfill it goes.

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