A friend referenced an article today on Forbes about the adverse effects of recycling and it made me jump with joy inside to know that a highly read financial news source discussed what many Americans fail to believe–recycling is not as “cheap” as mainstream America thinks! I often tell my students in class how recycling is something I don’t believe in, as if it is a fairy tale or Biblical story. What I more accurately mean to say is that I refuse to recycle, because the costs of recycling are higher than the benefits.
The CATO institute provides a great background on common public arguments in favor of recycling that you probably have heard of before:
1. Recycling helps preserve landfill space.
2. We protect the environment by recycling since burning trash causes health issues.
3. Recycling conserves scarce resources
CATO then goes on to refute these claims that I will sum up briefly:
1. We are not running out of landfill space. “All of the trash America will produce over the next 1,000 years could fit into a landfill 15 square miles in size.” Politicians like to claim that we are running out of space, because states are not building new landfill facilities, while many facilities have shut down due to high regulatory costs in recent years. With fewer landfills and the same, or more, amounts of trash there will be less capacity for trash. However, we are not lacking space to build new landfills if regulations and costs were cut down.
2. Burning trash does not cause cancer. “Solid waste landfills pose a lifetime cancer risk of less than 1 in 1,000,000 (about the same risk inherent in drinking a glass of tap water.” Further, landfills are so heavily regulated by the EPA that if anything landfills have gotten safer over time. Recycling, however, also poses similar risks to burning trash so trading off between burning trash and burning plastic is negligible.
3. In economics the price mechanism is used to divide scarce resources among people. If new plastic bottles are cheaper than using recycled plastic it is because less resources are used. Forcing citizens to recycle means that we are using more resources than if we used virgin products.
This article was written in 1992 and is still very accurate today. Recycling is not as economical as many people think! Clemson economist and Professor Emeritus, Daniel Benjamin, has researched on this topic for years and also finds similar results. His 8 great myths of recycling are a must read to inform you on the grittier details of why recycling is not economical.
Lastly, if you have not seen Penn & Teller’s Bullshit episode on Recycling you must. It is not only hilarious, but it displays how wrong Americans are when it comes to recycling and its economic costs.