Ever since the inception of recycling, opponents have insisted that ordinary citizens would never take the time to sort recyclable items from their trash. But despite such dour predictions, household recycling has flourished. From 1988 to 1996, the number of municipal curbside recycling collection programs climbed from about 1,000 to 8,817, according to BioCycle magazine. Such programs now serve 51 percent of the population. Facilities for composting yard trimmings grew from about 700 to 3,260 over the same period. These efforts complement more than 9,000 recycling drop-off centers and tens of thousands of workplace collection programs. According to the EPA, the nation recycled or composted 27 percent of its municipal solid waste in 1995, up from 9.6 percent in 1980.Depsite these trends, a number of think tanks, including the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Cato Institute (both in Washington, D.C.), the Reason Foundation (in Santa Monica, Calif.), and the Waste Policy Center (in Leesburg, Va.), have jumped on the anti-recycling bandwagon. These organizations are funded in part by companies in the packaging, consumer products, and waste-management industries, who fear consumers’ scrutiny of the environmental impacts of their products. The anti-recyclers maintain that government bureaucrats have imposed recycling on people against their will-conjuring up an image of Big Brother hiding behind every recycling bin. Yet several consumer researchers, such as the Rowland Company in New York, have found that recycling enjoys strong support because people believe it is good for the environment and conserves resources, not because of government edict.
Richard A. Denison is a senior scientist and John F. Ruston is an economic analyst with the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, D.C. and New York City, respectively.
Alas, the debate over recycling rages on. The most prominent example was an article that appeared last year in the New York Times Magazine, titled “Recycling Is Garbage,” whose author, John Tierney, relied primarily on information supplied by groups ideologically opposed to recycling. Here we address the myths he and other recycling opponents promote.
The modern recycling movement is the product of a false crisis in landfill space created by the media and environmentalists. There is no shortage of places to put our trash.
Fact: Recycling is much more than an alternative to landfills. The so-called landfill crisis of the late 1980s undoubtedly lent some impetus to the recycling movement (although in many cities around the country, recycling gained momentum as an alternative to incineration, not landfills). The issues underlying the landfill crisis, however, were more about cost than space.
Landfill space is a commodity whose price varies from time to time and from place to place. Not surprisingly, prices tend to be highest in areas where population density is high and land is expensive. In the second half of the 1980s, as environmental regulations became more stringent, large numbers of old landfills began to close, and many simply filled up, particularly in the Northeast. New landfills had to meet the tougher standards; as a result, landfill prices in these regions escalated dramatically. In parts of northern New Jersey, for example, towns that shifted their garbage disposal from local dumps to out-of-state landfills found that disposal costs shot from $15-20 per ton of garbage to more than $100 per ton in a single year. Although the number of open landfills in the United States declined dramatically-according to BioCycle magazine, from about 8,000 in 1988 to fewer than 3,100 in 1995-huge, regional landfills located in areas where land is cheap ultimately replaced many small, unregulated town dumps. Landfill fees declined somewhat and the predicted crisis was averted. Nonetheless, the high costs of waste disposal in the Northeast and, to a lesser extent, the West Coast, have spurred local interest in recycling: two-thirds of the nation’s curbside recycling programs operate in these regions.
But landfills are only part of the picture. The more important goals of recycling are to reduce environmental damage from activities such as strip mining and clearcutting (used to extract virgin raw materials) and to conserve energy, reduce pollution, and minimize solid waste in manufacturing new products. Several recent major studies have compared the lifecycle environmental impacts of the recycled materials system (collecting and processing recyclable materials and manufacturing them into usable form) with that of the virgin materials system (extracting virgin resources, refining and manufacturing them into usable materials, and disposing of waste through landfills or incineration). Materials included in the studies are those typically collected in curbside programs (newspaper, corrugated cardboard, office paper, magazines, paper packaging, aluminum and steel cans, glass bottles, and certain types of plastic bottles). The studies were conducted by Argonne National Labs, the Department of Energy and Stanford Research Institute, the Sound Resource Management Group, Franklin Associates, Ltd., and the Tellus Institute. All of the studies found that recycling-based systems provide substantial environmental advantages over virgin materials systems: because material collected for recycling has already been refined and processed, it requires less energy, produces fewer common air and water pollutants, and generates substantially less solid waste. In all, these studies confirm what advocates of recycling have long claimed: that recycling is an environmentally beneficial alternative to the extraction and manufacture of virgin materials, not just an alternative to landfills.
Recycling is not necessary because landfilling trash is environmentally safe.