Fact: While the prices of recycled materials fluctuate over time like those of any other commodity, the volume of major scrap materials sold in domestic and global markets is growing steadily. Moreover, many robust manufacturing industries in the United States already rely on recycled materials. These businesses are an important part of our economy and provide the market foundation for the entire recycling process.In paper manufacturing, for example, new mills that recycle paper to make corrugated boxes, newsprint, commercial tissue products, and folding cartons generally have lower capital and operating costs than new mills using virgin wood, because the work of separating cellulose fibers from wood has already occurred. Manufacturers of office paper may also face favorable economics when using recycling to expand their mills. Overall, since 1989, the use of recycled fiber by U.S. paper manufacturers has been growing faster than the use of virgin fiber. By 1995, 34 percent of the fiber used by U.S. papermakers was recycled, compared with 23 percent a decade earlier. During the 1990s, U.S. pulp and paper manufacturers began to build or expand more than 50 recycled paper mills, at a projected cost of more than $10 billion.
Recycling has long been the lower-cost manufacturing option for aluminum smelters; and it is essential to the scrap-fired steel “mini-mills” that are part of the rebirth of a competitive U.S. steel industry. The plastics industry, however, continues to invest in virgin petrochemical plants rather than recycling infrastructure-one of several reasons why the market for recycled plastics remains limited. Another factor not addressed by the plastics industry is that many consumer products come in different types of plastic that look alike but are more difficult to recycle when mixed together. Makers and users of plastic-unlike those of glass, aluminum, steel, and paper-have yet to work together to design for recyclability.
Recycling doesn’t “save trees” because we are growing at least as many trees as we cut to make paper.
Fact: Growing trees on plantations has contributed to a severe and continuing loss of natural forests.
In the southern United States, for example, where most of the trees used to make paper are grown, the proportion of pine forest in plantations has risen from 2.5 percent in 1950 to more than 40 percent in 1990, with a concomitant loss of natural pine forest. At this rate, the acreage of pine plantations will overtake the area of natural pine forests in the South during this decade, and is projected to approach 70 percent of all pine forests in the country during the next few decades. While pine plantations are excellent for growing wood, they are far less suited than natural forests to providing animal habitat and preserving biodiversity. By extending the overall fiber supply, paper recycling can help reduce the pressure to convert remaining natural forests to tree farms.
Recycling becomes even more important when we view paper consumption and wood-fiber supply from a global perspective. Since 1982, the majority of the growth in worldwide paper production has been supported by recycled fiber, much of it from the United States. According to one projection, demand for paper in Asia, which does not have the extensive wood resources of North America or northern Europe, will grow from 60 million tons in 1990 to 107 million tons in 2000. To forestall intense pressures on forests in areas such as Indonesia and Malaysia, industry analysts say that recycling will have to increase, a prediction that concurs with U.S. Forest Service projections.
Consumers needn’t be concerned about recycling when they make purchasing decisions, since stringent U.S. regulations ensure that products’ prices incorporate the costs of the environmental harms they may cause. Buying the lowest-priced products, rather than recycling, is the best way to reduce environmental impacts.
Fact: Even the most regulated industries generate a range of environmental damages, or “externalities,” that are not reflected in market prices.
When a coastal wetland in the Carolinas is converted to a pine plantation, estuarine fish hatcheries and water quality may decline but the market price of wood will not reflect this hidden cost. Similarly, a can of motor oil does not cost more to a buyer who plans to dispose of it by pouring it into the gutter, potentially contaminating groundwater or surface water, than to a buyer who plans to dispose of it properly. And there is simply no way to assign a meaningful economic value to rare animal or plant species, such as those endangered by clearcutting or strip mining to extract virgin resources. While many products made from recycled materials are competitive in price and function with virgin products, buying the cheapest products available does not provide an environmental substitute for waste reduction and recycling.
Recycling imposes a time-consuming burden on the American public.
Fact: Convenient, well-designed recycling programs allow Americans to take simple actions in their daily lives to reduce the environmental impact of the products they consume.
In a bizarre example of research, the author of “Recycling Is Garbage” asked a college student in New York City to measure the time he spent separating materials for recycling during one week. The total came to eight minutes. The author calculated that participation in recycling cost the student $2,000 per ton of recyclable trash by factoring in janitors wages and the rent for a square foot of kitchen space, as if dropping the newspapers on the way out the door could be equated with going to work as a janitor, or as if New Yorkers had the means to turn small, unused increments of apartment floor space into tradable commodities.
Using this logic, the author might have taken the next step of calculating the economic cost to society when the college student makes his bed and does his dishes every day. The only difference between recycling and other routine housework, like taking out the trash, is that one makes your immediate environment cleaner while the other does the same for the broader environment. Sorting trash does take some extra effort, although most people find it less of a hassle than sorting mail, according to one consumer survey. More important, it provides a simple, inexpensive way for people to reduce the environmental impact of the products they consume.
If we are serious about lowering the costs of recycling, the best approach is to study carefully how different communities improve efficiency and increase participation rates-not to engage in debating-club arguments with little relevance to the real-world problems these communities face. By boosting the efficiency of municipal recycling, establishing clear price incentives where we can, and capitalizing on the full range of environmental and industrial benefits of recycling, we can bring recycling much closer to its full potential.