• Last modified 595 days ago (Feb. 6, 2020)


Talking trash about recycling

Blasphemy! Given the madrassa-like fervor with which most of us are indoctrinated into environmentalism, that surely will be many people’s reaction to any editorial raising questions about recycling.

So before we go there, let’s establish some credentials.

Living eight months of the year in a larger community, I rely almost exclusively on mass transit, avoiding fossil fuels and carbon footprints in my daily commute.

Even my bus is a hydrogren-powered electric vehicle, the hydrogen generated via solar cells.

I haven’t used a personal vehicle in six days. When I do use a car, it’s a 35-mile-per-gallon subcompact, not some gigantic 4x4 pickup or SUV, guzzling gasoline and belching monoxide and particulates.

My house has occupancy sensors that turn down the heat when I’m sleeping or not home. I dutifully recycle each week, though I’m under no legal requirement to do so.

Even my house, until a fire a few years back, was passive solar in design, saving on heat by featuring a south-facing glass solarium. Shoot, I even save plastic utensils from carryout food, wash them, and use them to serve up the fancy feasts I feed my cat.

I’m as environmentally dedicated as any school kid who over the years has heard far more pro-environment, pro-diversity messages than messages about patriotism or faith in public school classrooms.

So when I say recycling is garbage, it’s not some naysayer talking. It’s a convert saying we really need to look at facts, not image. And it isn’t just me saying recycling is garbage. No less a group that the environmentally uber-conscious Sierra Club has said exactly the same thing.

Recycling rarely saves money, and it doesn’t really save resources, except in very limited areas. The whole notion that we need to recycle because we are running out of space in landfills has been proved false not only by scientists but also by a federal court, which ruled that the lone study on which the often-repeated claim was based was fatally flawed.

Some recycling — aluminum cans, for example, and some plastic bottles — pays. But most doesn’t.

We aren’t saving trees by recycling paper any more than we would be saving corn plants by not eating corn. Trees that are used to make paper are managed cash crops. We’re not turning the Amazonian rain forest into Post-It notes.

Truth be known, the environmental impact of hauling, pulping, chemically de-inking, and bleaching paper to recycle it probably takes a greater toll on the environment that does producing new paper for well-managed tree farms.

It’s a thoughtful gift to Mother Nature to say we’ll try to conserve her resources, but if the act of conservation consumes more resources than it saves, we’re not fooling her — just ourselves.

Part of the problem is that we never see the true cost of recycling. As homeowners and taxpayers, we end up paying for it in fees and taxes, but the little bits we pay here and there are so divided up among multiple governmental units —city and county — that we don’t have good picture of what it all costs and what we could use this money to pay for instead.

Private enterprise generally is more efficient than government, so it might be useful to look at what the private recycling industry says are the actual costs of recycling.

These numbers are from 2018 and might have become even less profitable since then, but they give you a idea how much we’re paying to provide only a symbolic gesture.

According to industry data, it costs at least $7 a month for a trash or recycling truck to visit a home to pick up refuse or recycling once a week. Pick it up three times a week, as Marion does, and the cost would be $21 a month. Because of rising fuel and labor costs, that’s almost 50% more than it was when recycling started. And that’s just to pick it up.

Sorting it now costs around $100 a ton, up almost 40%, largely because people have become so focused on recycling that they include all manner of things, recyclable or not, in what they set out. If a plastic bottle doesn’t have a “recyclable” logo on it, it isn’t recyclable. It contaminates the rest of your recycling. When in doubt, throw it out; don’t even try to recycle it. That’s one way average residents can help improve the economics of recycling.

We’re not going to try to account for all the worker hours, diesel fuel, and gasoline spent hauling stuff all across the countryside, looking for recycling centers that might accept it.

Truth is, that’s probably the biggest cost. But let’s look at the payoff instead. The price paid, even for “pure” recycling, has declined to $200 a ton. For less “pure” recycling, it’s down to $25 a ton or less — in some cases, zero or a negative value.

Part of the reason for this is human ecology. Time was, China was filled with hell holes that accepted all the world’s recycling and tried to make something out of the toxic sludge.

Finally, China has wised up and no longer is exposing its citizens to the environmental peril. What we were doing in the early years of recycling was merely shoveling all our waste on nigh-on slave labor, living in the worst conditions possible — both for humans and the environment. Now that this option has gone away, we have to live with our own waste without tricking ourselves into believing it somehow will be miraculously and cleanly recycled.

In my case, I pay $87.44 a month for once-a-week trash and recycling pickup by a private company, which competes for business with several other private companies operating in a metropolitan area of around 100,000 people. Costs in a rural area, without competition, with government inefficiency and with far greater transportation distances are likely to be much higher. You don’t see it as a single bill, but add all the taxes and fees together, and you’re probably paying a whole lot more.

Compare this to the prevailing nationwide price for road gravel, which ranges from $10 to $50 a ton. It’s costing us at least twice as much per ton just to separate out recyclables than it is to purchase gravel for county roads. Is that a choice we’ve intentionally made, or did all our indoctrination blind us to the tradeoffs we’re making?

Insisting on efficient pickup schedules of no more often than once a week, trying to recycle only those things we know for sure are recyclable, and not giving all our premium recyclables, like aluminum beverage cans, to charities might make government recycling more likely to break even or at least come close.

But if we really want to do something for the environment, instead of bemoaning the lack of recycling or chastising people who toss recyclables into trash — which is where most recyclables go anyway — start objecting to all the needlessly large fuel-guzzlers and businesses and homes that keep thermostats set higher than needed.

Make an impact where it matters, not by talking trash about recycling.


Last modified Feb. 6, 2020