My column last week about recycling drew more comment than most. Because I light no candle to the Patron Saint of Carefully Sorted Trash some of my readers found me guilty of heresy. They scolded me for what they took to be my distain for the wise and careful husbanding of precious resources.
I attribute the misunderstanding to a weakness I have for indulging my inner smart ass. In fact, I am a great friend of the earth. I am a firm believer in recycling all trash that it makes sense to recycle.
The point I wanted to make was that not all recycling per se is sensible.
Like so many government projects, government mandated or subsidized recycling usually develops into an astonishing waste. Nearly all the trash worth recycling was recycled by the private economy before the craze for municipal programs took hold in the 90’s. Most trash that has to be gathered, transported and sorted at a loss born by taxpayers would be better buried than recycled.
In an article for New York Magazine, John Tierney described New York’s recycling program: "For every ton of glass, plastic, and metal that the truck delivers to a private recycler, the city currently spends $200 more than it would spend to bury the material in a landfill. Officials hoped to recover this extra cost by selling the material, but the market has never been anywhere even near $200. In fact, it has rarely risen as high as zero." New York is far from alone in its wasteful handling of trash.
And therein lies the problem. It’s cheaper to bury most material that municipal programs recycle than it is to use it again. Money spent in excess of what it costs to bury garbage safely is pure waste. Modern landfills are clean and safe. There is plenty of room for landfills, and there will be for many generations.
Municipal programs have destroyed many private recycling markets. Before an exploding number of money losing government recycling programs glutted the market, paper and bottle drives were a reliable source of revenue for community non-profits like scout troops and church groups. The price of once valuable waste is now negative. Trash that financed camping trips and museum outings now costs money to get rid of.
Ironically, the print media have punished themselves with their unexamined promotion of ritual recycling. Paper is by far the most common material in the waste stream. A reader told me the Miami Herald saves millions of trees by using 100% recycled paper. If that’s true, it offers a perfect example of a big business willing to waste resources in a misguided effort to save the earth.
Recycled newsprint is more expensive than regular newsprint because it requires more water and energy to produce. It also creates a horrific sludge from the ink that washes out of the old paper.
The trees used to produce virgin newsprint are grown for the purpose. They are crops, no more the forest primeval than your front lawn, no more worth saving than this year’s broccoli crop. Tree farmers grow pulpwood like gardeners grow rutabagas. The only difference is that the crop cycle is longer.
The trees saved by using recycled newsprint will be used for newsprint anyway. It will require less water and energy to convert them to paper than to recycle old paper. As a bonus, virgin pulp creates no toxic ink sludge.
That the Herald would put itself at a competitive disadvantage so its readers can falsely believe they are saving the earth is a sad commentary on the state of rationality at a major newspaper and the gullibility of its readers. That we continue to support similarly wasteful municipal recycling projects is equally tragic.
There is nothing wrong with rooting around in your trash if it provides you with some satisfaction and a feeling of patriotic fulfillment. It’s a harmless pass time. Even if it wastes more than it saves it’s still much less wasteful than any number of other public projects. Sorting your trash, for instance, will never squander the resources that even the smallest code enforcement office or congressional committee will.
I remain enthusiastic about sensible recycling. I have a worm farm on my patio. The owners of the Flying Pie Pizzeria in Boise, Idaho have earned my undying admiration for their attempt to create the world’s largest ball of aluminum foil. The web cam project at www.foilball.com is an aesthetic and ecological triumph. Even tossing empty cans out of your pickup helps the homeless and reduces the cost of cans.
It is the wasteful recycling of useless rubbish that I oppose. Although playing with our trash is relatively harmless for individuals, if enough people are dragooned into the process, the waste of time, effort and material adds up fast.
Compulsory and subsidized recycling lights a ritual candle before the alter of political correctness. That candle doesn’t brighten our future, it dims it by wasting what we have today.