Notes from the NRC: How to respond to attacks on recycling
Resource Recycling readers may be familiar with the jabs at recycling that came through several editorials distributed nationally recently. It feels like deja vu as we are reminded how these same basic attacks have been recycled over and over in the last 25 years.
Most recently, we’ve seen a commentary from William F. Shughart II, who is associated with a libertarian think tank called the Independent Institute. His piece, which was picked up by a handful of media outlets last month, is replete with unfounded assumptions, gross generalizations and false statements that are dangerously misleading. The National Recycling Coalition is responding to these attacks, setting the record straight for all who are working hard everyday to maintain and grow recycling efforts. Below, see how we counter anti-recycling arguments.
The proof is in the material demand
Recycling makes sound environmental policy as well as sound business practice, resulting in significant environmental and economic benefits within our local communities, across the country and throughout the globe. It is an undisputed truth that more Americans – and more manufacturers – recycle today than in past decades, and they do so for good reason.
If, as Shughart asserts, “the costs associated with the process of recycling almost always outweigh the benefits,” why do manufacturers around the world rely on recycled metal, paper, plastic and other commodities for meeting nearly 50 percent of their raw material needs?
Here in the U.S., for instance, steelmakers rely on iron and steel scrap – processed from items as diverse as automobiles, household appliances, demolished bridges and old machinery – to make roughly two-thirds of the steel produced in the country every year. One-third of the U.S. aluminum supply comes from soda cans, aluminum siding and other forms of aluminum scrap.
And paper? Shughart’s statement that “it’s more expensive and more resource-intensive to recycle old paper than to cut and pulp pine trees” is patently false. If it were true, why would the U.S. paper industry rely on recovered fiber produced from such items as old newspapers, magazines, catalogs, office paper and used corrugated boxes for more than half of their supply need today? And yes, paper mills are beating down the door to buy quality scrap paper.
Mr. Shughart also proclaims that landfilling is better than recycling, conveniently ignoring the environmental costs of landfilling, as well as the financial costs to our communities. According to the U.S. EPA, “nearly 30 organic hazardous air pollutants have been identified in uncontrolled LFG (landfill gas), including benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene and vinyl chloride. Exposure to these pollutants can lead to adverse health effects.” Landfills are also the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the U.S.
Recycling helps us avoid these harmful effects, and the use of recycled instead of virgin materials reduces carbon dioxide emissions by significantly scaling back the total energy needed to manufacture the products that we buy, build and use every day.
A true cost comparison of recycling and landfilling must examine the full costs of those services on a program-by-program basis. There is great variation across the country. Researching the costs of each program requires an analysis of curbside collection and processing/management costs. It’s worth remembering the majority of recycling programs offer opportunities for revenues to offset some recycling costs – waste to landfill offers no such possibility.
Job creation and other major benefits
In addition, recycling is an important economic engine and job creator, supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs across the country and generating $11.2 billion in tax revenues for the federal, state and local governments. Every 10,000 metric tons of recyclables generates 37 jobs, which equates to $1.1 million in wages and $330,000 in tax revenues. And recycling’s economic benefits can be found in every state across the country.
Recycling also avoids the mining and extraction of raw materials, reducing environmental impacts in communities where mining waste can seriously degrade local landscapes and water resources. Conservation of natural resources is often not “counted” yet is a major benefit of recycling.
Through the recycling of aluminum, for example, there is the avoidance of mining bauxite ore. Recycling paper reduces the use of tree pulp. Utilizing recycled glass into new products significantly reduces energy consumption. Far from the “charade” that Shughart claims.
When one looks at the facts, it is clear that recycling makes much more sense than burying or burning our waste. The National Recycling Coalition encourages all Americans to recycle, not just because it seems like the right thing to do but because it makes clear environmental and economic sense.
Recycling makes greens go gaga,
but it’s a real burden for the rest of us
December 17, 2015
By William F. Shughart II, Tribune News Service
If you’re worried about the planet, please make sure your trash is buried in a landfill; there’s plenty of space available.
On the surface, the phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle” may seem like a sensible call to action for those who want to limit carbon emissions or reduce the amount of waste left behind for future generations.
The reality, however, is that the costs associated with the process of recycling almost always outweigh the benefits.
Even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says it only makes sense economically and environmentally to recycle about 35 percent of discarded materials. Among those materials are paper and aluminum cans, according to the agency.
Recycling 1 ton of paper or aluminum cans, the agency says, can save about 3 tons of carbon dioxide emissions over producing those materials anew.
But not so fast.
Paper mills pay for the trees they process. If it was cost-effective to recycle scrap paper, producers would be beating down your door to buy it. But they aren’t.
That means it’s more expensive and more resource-intensive to recycle old paper than to cut and pulp pine trees and then replant seedlings for processing when mature.
Plastic provides another cautionary tale. Given the recent dramatic decline in crude oil prices, it is now cheaper to make a new plastic container than to recycle an old one.
Even if that were not true, the EPA says that recycling a ton of plastic saves only about a ton of carbon dioxide. However, that estimate doesn’t take into account the water most consumers use to rinse their plastic containers before they put them into a recycling bin.
New York Times science columnist John Tierney recently wrote, citing the work of author Chris Goodall, “If you wash plastic in water that was heated by coal-derived electricity, then the net effect of your recycling could be more carbon in the atmosphere.”
Glass is an even worse recyclable. To reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 1 ton you have to recycle 3 tons of glass. If one includes the cost of collecting glass waste in small quantities from neighborhoods, and the pollution produced by the collection trucks and the recycling process itself, glass recycling creates more greenhouse gas emissions and is more expensive than making new glass, which comes primarily from sand, an abundant raw material.
No wonder many municipalities across the country continue to pick up glass in recycling trucks only to dump it at the local landfill.
Why the charade? Because “reduce, reuse, recycle” is an emotional mantra, not reasonable environmental policy, and years of indoctrination has left most Americans blind to the actual evidence surrounding recycling programs.
By sending an extra fleet of trucks around town once a week, adherents of the recycling religion actually are undermining their stated goal of protecting the environment.
It doesn’t help that the rise of the recycling movement has created a powerful interest group of recyclers who lobby politicians to keep things the way they are.
More rational environmental policies would consider the costs and benefits of recycling programs and scrap those that are wasteful and harmful to the environment.
If recycling were truly cost-effective, private companies would be lined up at your doorstep to buy your trash. Don’t look now because they’re not there.
The true recycling test is whether someone is willing to pay you to sort and save your trash. If they’re not, what you’ve been told about recycling in the past is probably just garbage.
William F. Shughart II, research director of the Independent Institute, 100 Swan Place, Oakland, Calif., is J. Fish Smith Professor in Public Choice at Utah State University’s Huntsman School of Business. Published in newsday.com