05 August 2011

Recycling may be garbage

I am skeptical of the value of recycling. But perhaps my greater concern is not whether recycling is worth it, but whether we can really have an informed debate about recycling and similar pressing issues in our society. Sadly, my guess is "no."

I think there are a lot of people who believe recycling is worth it and are not willing to question that belief. In that sense recycling has been one of the more dramatic successes of the environmental movement. In a short period of time, they've brought about big changes to people's behavior and governments' policies. It is all the more impressive that they've been able to bring about these changes despite unclear evidence of their value.

Maybe recycling will turn out to be like the profession of medicine: quickly popular and only eventually deserving of that popularity. Long before doctors could really help with much, they convinced society as a whole that they could help, and created a culture of clinics, hospitals, and general doctor-use and doctor-respect. Then society was all ready and primed when the time came (roughly speaking, the 2nd half of the 20th century) when they could actually start helping.

Anyway, back to the lack of questioning, perhaps it is telling that the best anti-recycling reference is still the 1996 New York Times Magazine article "Recycling is Garbage," by John Tierney. In other words, I would really have hoped to find more recent good mainstream references on the subject. Maybe there are, and I just haven't found them. Or maybe that was such a great article that there's no more to say on the subject. Or maybe it was so clearly wrong that no one else has bothered to pursue it. Or, most probable (and perhaps worst) of all, maybe questioning recycling is viewed as uninteresting or actually taboo.

Though they are in the minority, it is important to note that there are plenty of people on the other extreme; they believe recycling is not worth it and are not willing to question that belief. For instance there are a lot of frustratingly-conservative people who view any change with not just skepticism but derision and certainty of its foolishness.

What we really need, as always, are people who are in between, i.e. people who, regardless of what they currently believe about recycling, are willing to question those beliefs. We also need a few people who are equipped to perform the careful analysis of costs and benefits that is sorely needed. Plus they need to be equipped to communicate this analysis to the rest of us! The results of this analysis must be made as simple as possible, but no simpler. For example, I suspect the results of this analysis cannot be as simple as "it's worth it" or "it isn't."

I suspect that the costs and benefits of recycling vary greatly depending on things like the following. What materials are being recycled? Where is the recycling being done? How is it being done? How do you subjectively value some of the costs and benefits that are hard to assess objectively?

For example if in your area water is plentiful, that may lower the cost of water. Water is often used in both recycling and manufacturing from scratch. An expert could tell you which one uses more, but only you can say how much you think water truly costs. Perhaps you believe the market for water works perfectly and the true cost of water is the same as its market price. But I think not everyone feels that way. I certainly hope not.

Perhaps in your area water pollution is more costly than water use, or viewed by you as more costly. Then for you water pollution is more important than volume of water used. Perhaps climate change is your greatest concern; then CO2 emissions may trump anything having to do with water.

My point in these examples is that an expert can't be asked to say whether recycling is worth it. An expert can only be asked to say whether recycling uses more of various resources than manufacturing from scratch. Unfortunately it is up to you to decide the relative costs of those resources. What you really need then is not so much an expert but a person who you feel shares your values who has carefully considered the experts' more-or-less objective analysis.

In closing, I encourage you to Google for "Recycling is Garbage," since as far as I can tell it is the touchstone for all subsequent discussions of the topic.

P.S. I want to give a quick "shout-out" to a book I got from Greenhaven Press' Opposing Viewpoints Series, Garbage and Recycling. I see there is a new 2011 edition available. The whole series looks really great, and I think the U.S. would be a better place if kids read more stuff like this. Or, for kids who don't like to read, I recommend Morgan Spurlock's "30 Days" TV series, for non-polemic looks at some of our county's most important current issues.

1 comment:

  1. You raise some important issues here. I too am surprised by how unquestioningly our society recycles. Perhaps the lack of skepticism is indicative of the true purpose of recyclying, and its major flaw as a means to protect the life support systems of our planet: its main role is a palliative. Folks recycle, and that assuages their guilt over what they know (somewhere in their mind) is an unsustainable lifestyle. Then they don't make trouble for the corporations. So everyone wins except the planet (i.e. children, future generations, and other species). Because of this I suspect recycling is actually a net negative, but I think it would be difficult to show this quantitatively.

    On another note, of course we are each entitled to decide our environmental priorities for ourselves, but I think it is possible to show that this isn't always just a matter of opinion. For example, I think it's pretty clear that climate change trumps any local water concerns, as climate change is a key driver of water availability and over-availability in many locales (especially places where this is a perennial issue), and will affect the global availability of food. So it's possible for someone to just be wrong about their priorities. I've noticed over the years that many environmentalists tend to become very attached to their priorities and pet projects, and when this happens they lose the ability to see reality as it is, and they actually damage the global environmental effort by adding noise and confusion, and removing credibility.