The Truth of Recycling

From the first days of kindergarten, Americans are taught about the benefits and importance of recycling. The first lesson usually comes with some cartoon pictures of reusing bottles and banana peels while a picture of the Earth is smiling with friendly eyes, thanking you for saving her…at least that’s how my introduction to recycling began.

In fact recycling is so taken for granted as a common good by Americans that its merits are hardly ever debated by, well, anyone! It makes so much sense; by reusing materials we help resources stay longer and reduce our impact on the planet. But what if the costs of recycling outweigh the benefits? What if using the dreaded landfill *shudder* could pose zero risk to the environment and free up tax money for other environmental efforts-or, dare I say, leave more money in the hands of hard working Americans? Someone slap me, because I’m obviously talking crazy. Or am I?

According to J. Winston Porter, an EPA official and strong advocate for increased recycling in the 1990’s, it only makes sense to recycle about 35 percent of America’s waste. “It only makes sense to recycle commercial cardboard and some paper, as well as selected metals and plastics,” he says. He writes off food waste and compostables as being valuable, and says the goal of having zero waste is “very expensive with almost no real environmental benefit.”

In fact, all of the trash created by America over the next 1,000 years would fit on one tenth of one percent of the space free for grazing. Many landfills are turned into parks for children and recreation centers, including the site where the U.S. Open tennis tournament is held.

If you’re concerned about that carbon footprint, once you remove the benefits of recycling paper and metal, the combined savings of recycling every other product (glass, food, leather, plastics, textiles, rubber, etc.) is just two tenths of one percent of America’s carbon emissions.

The costs of recycling at our current pace strongly outweigh the benefits, with few environmental wins.