Issues & Insights

Recycling: America’s False Religion

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.

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J. Frank Bullitt

J. Frank Bullitt has been writing professionally since 1986. After covering local news for years, and putting in some time in Washington, D.C., he began writing opinions in 1998, covering a wide variety of domestic and international topics from a limited-government point of view.


  • Gentlemen,

    I have been working in the Environmental industry for about four decades.

    This is old news to anyone who has been paying attention to the facts on the ground.

    Recycling that works, works well. We can know this by the absence of subsidy for its practice.

    Savings and profits are the Lord’s way of informing us that what we do is worth our while (and His).

    The recycling business as it is actually practiced is nothing other than simple rent seeking on the part of fascist minded businessmen and government-captive ‘Non-Governmental Organizations’ of every stripe. They feed off the efforts of productive and useful citizens to no net benefit except for themselves.

    ‘Nuff said.


  • While still serving out my sentence as a CA resident, I became aware that the recycling initiative was an inneffcient scam with about the same effectiveness as a cargo cult – performing the same rituals in the hopes that the gods would someday shower the faithful with blessings. Yet, I continued to recycle, and continue to recycle in my new home back in America, and far from CA. Why? Am I crazy? Perhaps, but that’s a different matter. My theory was that ultimately the foolishness would be obvious to all, and by complying with the virtue-signallers’ request I would be doing my part to hasten the demise by overburdening the unstable system. It’s sort of a Cloward-Piven meets Alinsky tactic.

  • We can’t have a straw or a reusable, and very handy plastic bag, yet every other bloody thing at the supermarket and elsewhere else is in plastic..those keurig coffee pod abominations for example. I’ve yet to hear anyone say they should be banned.

  • Recycling of anything always comes down to money(profit).
    Distances from user to recycling center to end user is one
    of factors to determine profit. The other factor is the variable
    demand for recycled material.

    Recycling is one of those ‘feel good’ actions for many
    people. The author’s conclusion of responsible burial
    is the answer here in the U.S. The difficulty for the East
    and West coast cities is lack of land for disposal. Finding
    locations and tipping costs and shipping costs are the factors
    facing these large cities.

    My thought is reduction in packaging of products and the
    biodegradability or profitable recyclability of that packaging.


  • Wonderful article, very true about the falseness of subsidized recycling. I further feel that removal of what would potentially be valuable future resources from the landfills increases the potential economic burden of future land farming and recycling of the landfill space. If currently nonmarketable plastics are put in the landfill, they provide matrix for biological degradation of other waste, and can be easily recovered when the landfill cells are opened for reclamation and reuse.

  • Don’t expect any change. Recycling is faith based to the environmentalists.
    Same with things like wind and solar power. Engineering studies based on thermodynamics and economic cost analysis have indicated that these energy sources actually ever pay for themselves. Usually they are supported by subsidies paid to lobbyists and political supporters, essentially a racket.

  • Another false religion as bad or worse than recycling is the phony (war on drugs) that has worked out so well for the world. Another political football that profited a few and destroyed millions.

  • Unlike the Man Caused Global Warming scare, the science on the damaging effects of the huge amount of plastics in our environment is not in question. Plastics did not exist before man created them. Plastics washed into the seas or dumped into oceans cause great damage to ecosystems and kill lots of marine animals that mistakenly swallow or inhale the plastics. They also break down in the environment into what are called microplastics. Microplastics then enter our food supply and the food supply of birds and other animals. This is already greatly reducing human fertility in industrialized countries. We need to reverse course and go back to food packaging in paper and wax paper, and glass jars. We need to purchase reusable grocery bags or go back to paper bags in the grocery stores. We need to fund more objective scientific research into the problem. Much of the groundbreaking research on this topic has come from Australian universities due to the continent being completely surrounded by oceans, and its close proximity to the dumping of plastics by Asian countries to the north. Like lead pollution and horrible air and litter pollution to generations past, this will be the defining pollution of our time, and it will require a similar response.

    • And so, as the article suggests, we also need to be cognizant of where our plastic waste goes. If we “recycle” it to a place where it isn’t contained properly (since so little of it is actually being recycled into more plastic), we’re polluting, in the end.

  • The entire recycling industry was started on a lie. A garbage scow out of Long Island, in 1987, was refused at many landfills up and down the Eastern seaboard.. No one wanted the debris. The story turned into a tale of full landfills and that the nation was running out of space for our garbage/recyclables. This was not the case.

  • These are some good points. However paper products use less energy and resources to produce and decompose naturally – and should replace plastics where practical.
    The real problem is containment of non biodegradable trash.
    at some point in the future the amount of nondegradable trash in the oceans will damage fisheries and worse, the plankton that produce the majority of the oxygen that we breathe. This will be almost impossible to clean it up and the amount of resources required is almost unthinkable
    better now to change to biodegradable trash and to substitute as much non-biodegradable for biodegradable as practical.
    Biodegradable paper straws, paper cups and bags, and paper containers are as satisfactory as plastic. Wax paper is still used in many serial and other food containers
    The issue is not recycling or plastic; the issue is biodegradable vs non-biodegradable and the containment of trash.
    David Pickett
    Inventor of the chip on your credit card

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