Ten years ago, I argued that recycling is in general nothing more than an expensive feel-good mandate from clueless politicians that costs more than it benefits except in very limited circumstances: metals and paper recycling actually do save energy and reduce costs. The rest of it, such as mandates to compost food waste and yard debris are pure and utter nonsense. Now, much to my surprise, even The New York Times agrees:
According to the E.P.A.’s estimates, virtually all the greenhouse benefits — more than 90 percent — come from just a few materials: paper, cardboard and metals like the aluminum in soda cans. That’s because recycling one ton of metal or paper saves about three tons of carbon dioxide, a much bigger payoff than the other materials analyzed by the E.P.A. Recycling one ton of plastic saves only slightly more than one ton of carbon dioxide. A ton of food saves a little less than a ton. For glass, you have to recycle three tons in order to get about one ton of greenhouse benefits. Worst of all is yard waste: it takes 20 tons of it to save a single ton of carbon dioxide.
Once you exclude paper products and metals, the total annual savings in the United States from recycling everything else in municipal trash — plastics, glass, food, yard trimmings, textiles, rubber, leather — is only two-tenths of 1 percent of America’s carbon footprint.
For the most part, the recycling mandates have been driven, as mentioned a decade ago, by clueless politicians eager to demonstrate their commitment to Green&Sustainable - no matter what the cost. Recycling has been such a mantra for so long that it's become a sort of dogma that otherwise intelligent people blindly accept because...well, because. And that is far from an intelligent approach to the issue.
The national rate of recycling rose during the 1990s to 25 percent, meeting the goal set by an E.P.A. official, J. Winston Porter. He advised state officials that no more than about 35 percent of the nation’s trash was worth recycling, but some ignored him and set goals of 50 percent and higher. Most of those goals were never met and the national rate has been stuck around 34 percent in recent years.
“It makes sense to recycle commercial cardboard and some paper, as well as selected metals and plastics,” he says. “But other materials rarely make sense, including food waste and other compostables. The zero-waste goal makes no sense at all — it’s very expensive with almost no real environmental benefit.”
Yet "zero-waste" is precisely what the fashionable politicians are pushing today; not because it's sound public policy, but because they mistakenly believe that it somehow enhances their "Green" stature. And still, otherwise perfectly intelligent people go along with what their politicians demand, despite the fact that any actual analysis reveals that what they demand is pure, self-serving baloney. Perhaps they can recycle some of that; it'd certainly generate identical environmental effects.
“If you believe recycling is good for the planet and that we need to do more of it, then there’s a crisis to confront,” says David P. Steiner, the chief executive officer of Waste Management, the largest recycler of household trash in the United States. “Trying to turn garbage into gold costs a lot more than expected. We need to ask ourselves: What is the goal here?”
What, indeed? As a dispassionate look makes clear, the goal is manifestly not environmental, but about political image. Portland, Oregon, for example, prides itself (unjustifiably) on creating and maintaining a Green&Sustainable image: they issued a mandate that garbage would be picked up no more than twice a month, while recycling and yard debris would be picked up weekly. They also had roomy food-slop buckets produced, stamped with spiffy logos, and delivered to each home along with routine exhortations to take your food slop and dump it into your yard debris bin for "composting". Yet they cannot tell you how much of a "carbon footprint" this idiocy generated.
The city likewise demanded that businesses separate out food waste for "composting". Inasmuch as the "composting" site lay outside the urban growth boundary, in the little community of North Plains, it was no big deal. Until, of course, it became one: between the putrid odors and the invasion of scavengers, residents and the county demanded that the project be curtailed. Portland now trucks its food waste north for over three hours to a remote facility in NW Washington, then drives the empty trucks back.
Yet Portland politicians portray the city as Green&Sustainable.
And to that end, they enacted a ban on "plastic bags" as environmentally unfriendly - because they're made from petroleum. That is, of course, a lie: polyethylene bags are produced from a byproduct of natural gas wells that in the past was simply burned (or "flared off" in industrial terminology). So they're produced from a waste product - kind of the ultimate in recycling - and when returned to the stores (all of which have bag-bins) are recycled again into things like milk jugs, park benches, and decking.
But politicians called them environmental hazards - despite the fact that they initially hailed the bags as a way to save trees. To that end, they claimed that plastic bags kill marine life; a claim refuted not only by environmental studies, but even by activist groups:
As David Santillo, a senior biologist with Greenpeace, told The Times of London, "It's very unlikely that many animals are killed by plastic bags. The evidence shows just the opposite. We are not going to solve the problem of waste by focusing on plastic bags. With larger mammals it's fishing gear that's the big problem. On a global basis plastic bags aren't an issue."
Once again, politicians eager to burnish their "green" image at any cost, imposed a ban on something that is not only incredibly useful, but actually a miracle of sorts: the cornea in your eye is thicker than a "plastic bag" but that plastic bag can easily hold nearly 20 pounds of groceries - and can withstand rain, and can be re-used. This is yet another reason to avoid cities like Portland; their politicians are all about style rather than substance.
When these same politicians yammer at you about the effects of "man-made" global warming, remember that they're all about symbolism (at your expense) rather than science.