I haven't heard people attack recycling in awhile, so it was a bit of a surprise to see this editorial in the NYT today. The author, John Tierney, is a little much for me personally, meaning both that I think he stretches too far in search of his goal and that he can be snide. (Of course, I enjoy snide remarks made by people I agree with, so I shouldn't fault him too much for this characteristic.) In this piece, I have to say that he makes some really good points when he's not being an ass. Here some key takeaways from the piece:
1) Recycling is expensive. Once you take into account all the costs of consumers separating trash, vehicles moving the recycled goods to a processing facility, then sorting, grouping, and processing the materials for recycling, most goods really aren't worth it. Metals are the big exception: they are very worth it. As I recall, paper's not bad, but glass is either a total wash or maybe yields very tiny profit. Plastic is costly and largely unproductive. In the article, Tierney notes that the pinch is even worse now since the cost of making new materials is lower than ever (since oil is cheap right now). That makes sense, particularly for plastics.
Much of Tierney's article is about bashing the inefficiency of plastics recycling, though he writes as though it's about recycling in general. Notice how little attention he pays to aluminum, which is the real moneymaker. Yes, John, recycling plastics isn't a very profitable undertaking. You're right.
2) Landfills are cheap. It's true: in this country, we have a lot of land per person, much more than in, say, Western Europe. It's also true that we're getting better at minimizing the environmental impact of landfills by installing liners and, in a few cases, capturing emitted methane. I don't think that happens enough, but it does happen, and hopefully it will become increasingly common.
3) Composting is important for limiting greenhouse gases, but it's hard to do right, particularly at scale. I think it's great when I see people building or stirring their bins.
4) Taxing garbage is a good way to go. When I lived in Japan, the garbage collectors would only take trash that was set out in certain special bags that had a garbage fee built into their costs. That way people had to pay when they produced more trash, rather than paying a flat fee for as much trash as they could produce.
5) One issue he doesn't consider at all is the "supply side" of trash. Yes, once we have produced garbage there's a lot of it that we might best dispose of cheaply by burying or high temperature incineration. However, it'd be best if we could learn to produce less trash in the first place. The zero-trash movement he mocks is as much about reducing and reusing as it is about recycling- remember the little triangle?
So why the histrionics, John? I guess he's an opinion writer and not a journalist (much less a researcher) because he can't be bothered to fully investigate the issue.