Is Recycling Rubbish? John Tierney, Adam Minter, Wes Thompson Sort Through the Issues

Wes in front of cans
Wes Thompson, Recycle Coordinator for the City of Santa Monica, at the entrance to Santa Monica Recycling Center. Photo credit: Frances Anderton

Is recycling rubbish?

Americans are deeply committed to recycling  according to the EPA, in 2013, we generated about 254 million tons of trash and recycled and composted about 87 million tons. That’s a roughly one-third recycling rate, or 1.51 pounds out of the 4.4 pounds each of us generates per day.

But is all this effort worth it? John Tierney, science writer for The New York Times, wrote back in 1996 that recycling is “a waste of time and money, a waste of human and natural resources.”

He repeated this argument in a recent op-ed entitled “The Reign of Recycling,” writing, “when it comes to the bottom line, both economically and environmentally, not much has changed at all.”

The losers, he says, are municipalities trying to attain higher and higher levels of recycling, and the individuals – us – who function in his view as “unpaid garbage sorters.”

On the other hand, “Recycling is the easiest proven contribution to the reduction of greenhouse gases,” Wes Thompson, Recycling Coordinator for the City of Santa Monica, has told the NYT.

And forget worthy reasons for recycling, just think about worth: Adam Minter, author of “Junkyard Planet” who comes from a family in the waste disposal industry, says there are cold, hard business reasons for not sending stuff to the landfill.

Read on for more from DnA’s conversations with John Tierney, Adam Minter and Wes Thompson. You can also listen to what they had to say on DnA and get a substantial fact-check on Tierney’s claims, here.

Let us know what you think about recycling; is it worth your time and energy?

Pile of paper trash
A mound of paper following sorting from other recyclables. Photo credit: Frances Anderton

“Why would China import a bunch of old American bottles?”

Tierney told DnA: “Recycling started with the idea that we’re running out of materials and that we’re running out of space to bury garbage in landfills. And both of those ideas have turned out to be wrong. And it’s probably because of that it’s more expensive generally to recycle than it is to to bury trash in landfills or to incinerate it. And therefore it doesn’t make economic sense to do it.”

But Thompson says that recycling is “business” and so does Minter. Minter told DnA:

“When you talk about carbon offsets and when you talk about saving energy you’re actually talking about saving money. And that’s why we recycle. It’s a hugely profitable business. Over the last ten years, most years it’s been the number one export by volume from the United States to China.”

“Why would China import a bunch of old American bottles or old American scrap paper or old American automobiles? Because it’s a cheaper raw material to use than to go and set up a new copper mine or clear cut a forest.”

Men sorting waste
Mixed trash that goes along a conveyor belt, where workers are pulling various bits of refuse out. Photo credit: Frances Anderton

Recycling is a cyclical business

Minter adds that shortly after Tierney wrote his 1996 article criticizing recycling, “commodities underwent what’s called the commodity super-cycle, one of the great runs of market-based enthusiasm in history… then about a year and a half ago, or two years ago, Chinese growth started slowing down. And when Chinese growth started slowing down they didn’t need as much steel, they didn’t need as much aluminum, they didn’t need as much plastic. And that hurt the recycling business and all of these municipal recycling programs around the United States which had done extremely well, started suffering.

“But nobody in China is saying there’s no future in this. They’re saying let’s wait for the markets to recover. So absolutely the municipalities right now are losing money. Then it’s just a matter of waiting out the markets. But it’s nothing new and this too shall pass.”

Chute and pile of paper
A pile of waste paper is the end of the process of sorting recyclables. Photo credit: Frances Anderton

Are all recyclables equal?

Tierney seems to suggest that business should be the driver for municipalities. He told DnA that the problem in US recycling is the setting of “arbitrary goals” when recycling’s value “depends entirely on where you are. It depends on what the material is, it depends on what the local the current market conditions are.”

And not all recyclables are of equal value. Tierney says, “More than 90 percent of the benefit of recycling is the greenhouse benefit that comes from paper and cardboard and metal. The other stuff  the glass, the plastic, the yard waste, the food waste  you’re fooling yourself if you think that absolves you from your other environmental sins if that’s the way you see putting carbon in the atmosphere.”

Seems like industry insiders agree. Paper is the most desirable recyclable at Santa Monica Recycling Center, says Thompson.

Wee recyclers
From Wee Recyclers Guide from Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Are we unpaid garbage sorters?

Tierney says there is an incalculable cost in America’s devotion to recycling, “If you actually counted the labor that everyone (expends) by turning all of us into unpaid garbage sorters, it would just make recycling horrendously expensive.”

Not to mention the price paid by our consciences, he added.

“I think of all the time that children spend in school learning about garbage. I went to a third grade classroom where they spent a whole week of science class studying garbage and they were made to feel just terribly guilty that they were destroying the Earth, and if they didn’t recycle that yogurt container. poor Mother Earth was really going to suffer. And I just wanted to tell them, ‘look, that yogurt container came out of the earth. It was put to a good purpose and we’ll put it back in the Earth and safely cover it and turn it into a park.’”

But is Tierney suggesting we should consume and waste without heed to its consequences? He says recycling is Americans’ form of “atonement” for its consumption, and adds, “In the sense that (recycling) makes people feel better. . . there’s nothing wrong with with religious rituals. I just wish it wasn’t mandatory for everyone else.”

bales of recyclables
Bales of squashed cans, plastic bottles and paper are ready to be shipped to companies that will turn those sorted materials into new products. Photo credit: Frances Anderton

What about airplanes?

Assuming the reason for recycling is to minimize carbon emissions, Tierney argues recycling doesn’t accomplish that either, writing in his op-ed: “To offset the carbon emissions from one plane to Europe, you would have to recycle about 40,000 plastic bottles.”

Which begs another question… is Tierney saying we should focus less on recycling our kitchen waste and more on the impact of flying? His answer:

“If you’re concerned about carbon emissions, you’ll do more for the planet by worrying about things that really contribute to the greenhouse effect  air travel is probably the number one thing. Having a second home is another huge contributor and so is using your car an awful lot. These things actually make a big contribution.”

Screen Shot 2015-10-15 at 11.35.06 AM
An airplane approaches Heathrow airport To offset emissions from one New York-London flight you’d have to recycle 40,000 plastic bottles. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

But that doesn’t mean we should give up on kitchen waste

Minter says one doesn’t cancel out the other. In recycling terms, “40,000 plastic bottles isn’t very much. In 2010 the United States generated 42 billion plastic water bottles. So if you divide Tierney’s 40,000 into that, that means one million carbon offsets for round-trip flights between New York and London in a given year, so that’s a lot of carbon saved. And that’s just water bottles.”

While he agrees with Tierney that air travel is a big polluter, saying “around two to three percent of global carbon emissions come from aviation,” he adds that doesn’t let us off the hook. “If you recycle 40,000 bottles, that offset doesn’t need to go to jet travel. We do need to be thinking about jet travel and what contribution it makes to the global emissions debate. But in terms of recycling, offsets are offsets and it just depends on how you want to apply them.”

More on this topic:

More from Tierney and other guests on this KCRW ‘To The Point’ discussion on recycling

Rob Kaplan, guest on To The Point and Closed Loop Fund, which grants loans to cities and companies to start recycling programs, fact checks the Tierney article

Reason magazine on the cost-benefits of recycling 

Mangu-Ward on what prohibitionists get wrong about plastic bags

Everything Talks “Who Killed The Plastic Bag?”, Tom Saunders’ humorous take for DnA