Recycling Myths

Recycling Often Spends More Resources Than It Saves


If there’s a buzzword in the business of managing America’s solid waste problem, surely it is “recycling.” At times the term seems to have taken on an almost religious meaning, with the faithful assuming that “disposable” is bad and “recycling” is good by definition.

There’s nothing wrong with recycling when it’s approached from a perspective of sound economics, good science, and voluntary cooperation. Too often, it’s promoted as an end in itself without regard to whether it’s worth the time and expense.

Recently, a speaker on this subject told my local Rotary Club that we should all recycle more of the paper we use so America could save its trees. The implication was that we’re using too much paper, that trees are endangered, and that our civic duty requires that we do more with less.

As it turns out, most of the trees that are planted in America are planted with the intent of eventually harvesting them to make things like paper. This means that if we all used less paper, there would be fewer trees planted. Maybe some people ought to use less paper anyway (bureaucrats, for instance), but no one should assume that the people who are in the business of growing and harvesting trees are going to continue to do so even if we don’t buy their products.

“We’re running out of trees” is a fiction older than most of the trees alive today. The truth is that though the total area of forestland in the continental United States is about the same as it was 75 years ago—600 million acres—there are far more trees because of greater tree density per acre. Market-driven technological changes, such as the development of wood preservatives, have led to more efficient use of forest resources. Market incentives have given private land owners good reason to replant nearly three million acres of trees every year. So when it comes to paper, recycle to your heart’s content, but not because you think we’ll run out of trees if you don’t.

A recycling mania has been sweeping the country for nearly a decade. More than 6,000 curbside programs are operated by local governments, serving at least 70 million Americans. In a recent year, more than 140 recycling laws were passed in 38 states—mandating the activity or requiring taxpayers to pay for it, or both. All this has occurred at the same time that cost-cutting entrepreneurs are busy producing less and less packaging to contain more and more goods.

Without any edicts from politicians, plastic milk jugs today contain 30 percent less plastic than they did just 20 years ago. The weight of aluminum cans declined by 36 percent between 1960 and 1990. Experts like Lynn Scarlett of the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation point out that America’s solid waste problem is a public policy failure, not a market failure.

Because of flat rate charges for municipal garbage pick-up and disposal, government policies in most areas subsidize those who throw away large quantities of refuse at the expense of those who throw away very little. Entrepreneurs know how to construct landfills now that pose absolutely no hazard to the environment, and anyone who has ever flown over almost any state knows there’s plenty of land for this purpose, but naysaying regulators have almost closed down this efficient waste management option.

The fact is that sometimes recycling makes sense and sometimes it doesn’t. In the legislative rush to pass recycling mandates, state and local governments should pause to consider the science and the economics of every proposition. Often, bad ideas are worse than none at all and can produce lasting damage if they are enshrined in law. Simply demanding that something be recycled can be disruptive of markets and it does not guarantee that recycling that makes either economic or environmental sense will even occur.

Many people believe that simply segregating plastic containers, glass bottles, newspapers, and metal cans and then placing them in colorful boxes at curbside means that recycling has somehow taken place. Without ever questioning either the cost or the outcome of the process that starts at the curb, they assume that whatever happens must be both economically and environmentally sound.

Recycling, however, doesn’t really happen unless all that plastic, glass, paper, and metal is turned into new, useful products that are actually in demand in the marketplace. Some of what we put at curbside actually ends up in a landfill or piled to the ceiling in warehouses with no place to go. Recycling programs may make a lot of civic-minded citizens feel good, but the whole rationale is undermined to the extent they are nothing more than expensive, politically motivated, and circuitous methods of old-fashioned garbage disposal.

Quite often, more energy and resources are spent than saved in the process of recycling. Municipal governments, because of the inherent shortcomings of public sector accounting and budget information, routinely underestimate the full costs of their recycling programs.

One area where recycling plainly works is in the disposal of aluminum cans. Since the process requires 10 percent less energy than transforming bauxite into aluminum, it pays for producers to use recycled cans. Hence, a market has developed for these cans, and market incentives encourage entrepreneurs to find efficient ways to collect them.

One area where recycling doesn’t make sense is in the disposal of juice containers used principally by school children. Aseptic disposable packages such as those small juice boxes were banned in Maine and are a target of the more extreme environmentalists. But as a 1991 study from the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA) in Dallas showed, such knee-jerk, interventionist, pseudo-solutions to nonproblems are rooted in misinformation or incomplete information:

• Filling disposable boxes requires about half as much energy as filling the supposedly preferable alternative, glass bottles.

• For a given beverage volume, transporting empty glass bottles requires 15 times as many trucks as the empty boxes—thus using more fuel and causing more air pollution.

• Because the end product is lightweight, small, and rectangular, the filled boxes can be transported more efficiently than full glass bottles—using 35 percent less energy.

Some states have threatened to ban disposable diapers as a way to encourage the use (and recycling) of cloth diapers. Studies show, however, that when all environmental effects are considered, cloth has no clear advantage over disposables. In California and other western states where there is relatively abundant landfill space and a shortage of water, the case for disposables is actually quite strong. Residents of those states who avoid them and wash cloth diapers with scarce water may actually be doing harm to the environment. The marketplace, once again, is not as dumb as certain do-gooders think it is.

Several cities, including Portland, Oregon, and Newark, New Jersey, have essentially banned polystyrene food packages. That’s what McDonald’s used to put its burgers in until it was pressured into switching to paperboard containers. The average American thinks these efforts are positive for the environment because they will somehow promote recycling. They also believe that because paper is “biodegradable” and polystyrene is not, the switch will reduce the need for landfills. The truth of the matter is more complicated than that.

Polystyrene, it so happens, is completely recyclable, which isn’t always true of the paper used in, say, drinking cups. And those paper cups, by the way, cost the consumer about 2 times as much as polystyrene.

Studies from NCPA and other respected organizations show that production of the old polystyrene McDonald’s hamburger shell actually used 30 percent less energy than paperboard and resulted in 46 percent less air pollution and 42 percent less water pollution. The average 10-gram paper cup consumes 33 grams of wood and uses 28 percent more petroleum in its manufacture than the entire input of a polystyrene cup.

Furthermore, the paper cup requires 36 times more chemical input (partly because it weighs seven times as much) and takes about 12 times as much steam, 36 times as much electricity and twice as much cooling water to make, compared to its polystyrene counterpart. And, about 580 times as much waste water, 10 to 100 times the residual effluents of pollutants, and three times the air emission pollutants are produced in making the paper cup.

Environmentalists who put their faith in government, with hardly a scrap of evidence that suggests they should, seem oblivious to these realities. To them, mountains of refuse waiting to be recycled into things people don’t want at a cost they would never freely pay is not a reason to abolish mandatory recycling schemes. Instead, it gives them a reason to pass new laws that would force-feed the economy with recycled products.

Market economists—by nature, philosophy, and experience—are skeptical of schemes to supplant the free choices of consumers with the dictates of central planners. The recycling mania confirms their suspicions. []


March 1995



Lawrence W. (“Larry”) Reed became president of FEE in 2008 after serving as chairman of its board of trustees in the 1990s and both writing and speaking for FEE since the late 1970s. Prior to becoming FEE’s president, he served for 20 years as president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan. He also taught economics full-time from 1977 to 1984 at Northwood University in Michigan and chaired its department of economics from 1982 to 1984.

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