Before climate change became a belief system in which humans are expected to perform penance for their sins against Gaia, recycling was the religion of many in the modern world. Those who didn’t reduce, reuse, and recycle were, and still are, considered heretics.
Nearly a quarter century ago, John Tierney wrote in the New York Times Magazine that “Recycling Is Garbage.” In an article that produced the greatest volume of hate mail in the magazine’s history, Tierney said that rather than recycling, “the simplest and cheapest option is usually to bury garbage in an environmentally safe landfill.” With the exception of a few items — aluminum cans, cardboard, office paper — the cost of the recycling equipment plus the process itself exceeded the value of the products created by recycling.
Though recycling rarely makes economic sense and often burns up more fresh resources than would have been used in making new items, Americans recycled. And recycled. And recycle still.
Are we better off for it? It can easily be argued we are worse off. Our recycling obsessions have instigated a war on plastic that’s inconvenienced consumers and cost them billions. Recycling has also helped create an environmental mess. Roughly 90 percent of all plastic found in the oceans, says the Hemholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Germany, is carried there by “the top 10 rivers with the highest loads” of plastic debris. Eight of those rivers are in Asia, two are in Africa. None are in the U.S.
Because recycling has become “a transcendental experience, an act of moral redemption” for Americans, we have been sending our refuse to Asia for decades. According to The Spectator, a British magazine, 106 million tons of plastic waste has been exported “to China over the past 20 years or more.”
Not all made it to recycling centers.
“A significant proportion of this,” says The Spectator, “is thought to have ended up in the oceans.”
China, the biggest market for our garbage, and other developing nations have largely stopped taking plastic waste from the West for recycling. This has caused a backup in the countries that produce and consume the most plastic.
But Yale Environment 360 says that “even before China’s ban, only 9% of discarded plastics were being recycled, while 12% were burned. The rest were buried in landfills or simply dumped and left to wash into rivers and oceans.”
The green book says that single-use plastic must be eliminated to protect the environment. That has naturally led to multiple bans on plastic bags, plastic straws, and plastic utensils in the West; suggestions that governments require manufacturers to make plastic products more easily recyclable; and proposals for “expanding processing capacities in North America and Europe.”
The most reasonable solution, though, is not stepped-up recycling and virtue-signaling bans. The answer is to discard plastics in the same places we put the rest of our trash — in landfills. It’s generally cheaper and there’s no shortage of space.
“In reporting the 1996 article I found that all the trash generated by Americans for the next 1,000 years would fit on one-tenth of 1% of the land available for grazing,” Tierney wrote in a 2015 followup.
“And that tiny amount of land wouldn’t be lost forever, because landfills are typically covered with grass and converted to parkland,” such as the Freshkills Park on Staten Island, Tierney continues. To the north and west in Queens, the “United States Open tennis tournament is played on the site of an old landfill — and one that never had the linings and other environmental safeguards required today.”
It’s unlikely urban areas will be homes to future landfills. But there’s plenty of room in undeveloped areas. In fact, says Tierney, landfills are “welcomed in rural communities,” where they can “reap large economic benefits (and have plenty of greenery to buffer residents from the sights and smells).”
Modern, well-lined landfill in rural areas, he says, pose relatively little environmental fallout. Yes, the decomposing garbage “releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas, but landfill operators have started capturing it and using it to generate electricity.” Given the amount of garbage the First World produces, it’s almost a renewable energy source.
Another alternative is incineration. Though politically unpopular in the United States, Tierney says, incinerators “release so few pollutants that they’ve been widely accepted in the eco-conscious countries of Northern Europe and Japan for generating clean energy.”
Fiona Ma, California treasurer, says, “We are in a crisis moment in the recycling movement right now.” That’s true only for those who continue to believe in the redemptive powers of recycling. The apostates know better.
Issues & Insights is a new site formed by the seasoned journalists behind the legendary IBD Editorials page. We’re just getting started, and we’ll be adding new features as time permits. We’re doing this on a voluntary basis because we believe the nation needs the kind of cogent, rational, data-driven, fact-based commentary that we can provide.
Be sure to tell all your friends! And if you’d like to make a contribution to support our effort, feel free to click the Tip Jar over on the right.