Monday, October 5, 2015

Is Recycling Working?

Elpasonaturally has posted before about the economics of recycling. The price of recycled commodities is going down while the cost to recycle is going up. Now comes John Tierney's The Reign of Recycling published yesterday in the New York Times Review.

Tierney's analysis is based on how much different commodities reduce the carbon footprint. It was surprising to read the following:

"According to the E.P.A.’s estimates, virtually all the greenhouse benefits — more than 90 percent — come from just a few materials: paper, cardboard and metals like the aluminum in soda cans. That’s because recycling one ton of metal or paper saves about three tons of carbon dioxide, a much bigger payoff than the other materials analyzed by the E.P.A. Recycling one ton of plastic saves only slightly more than one ton of carbon dioxide. A ton of food saves a little less than a ton. For glass, you have to recycle three tons in order to get about one ton of greenhouse benefits. Worst of all is yard waste: it takes 20 tons of it to save a single ton of carbon dioxide."

He continues:

"Once you exclude paper products and metals, the total annual savings in the United States from recycling everything else in municipal trash — plastics, glass, food, yard trimmings, textiles, rubber, leather — is only two-tenths of 1 percent of America’s carbon footprint.

"As a business, recycling is on the wrong side of two long-term global economic trends. For centuries, the real cost of labor has been increasing while the real cost of raw materials has been declining. That’s why we can afford to buy so much more stuff than our ancestors could. As a labor-intensive activity, recycling is an increasingly expensive way to produce materials that are less and less valuable."

In addition, Tierney points out that making recycling mandatory and hiring an army of garbage police will be even a greater burdern for fee and taxpayers. Do any of us want to pay higher garbage fees or property taxes to allow the city to have enough people to pry through our garbage bins and issue citations? Even if employing such an army were possible, the very idea is ridiculous and an offense to our rights of privacy. 

Tierney concludes: 

". . . cities have been burying garbage for thousands of years, and it’s still the easiest and cheapest solution for trash. The recycling movement is floundering, and its survival depends on continual subsidies, sermons and policing. How can you build a sustainable city with a strategy that can’t even sustain itself?"

That landfill is sounding better all of the time especially when you realize that, when we pay our garbage fees, we are subsidizing the recylcing industry here in El Paso. (Read Friedman Brothers.) We each pay $17 and the City pays for all of the collection: trucks, drivers, fuel, etc. With commodity prices decreasing and with many El Pasoans dumping non-recyclables into the blue bin, the Friedmans use both as an excuse not to pay the City (us) a dime. That's not sustainable.

There are, of course, other costs we accrue for not recycling. 

Plastics and other debris are having a horrendous impact on the environment and on our pocketbooks. The destruction of marine life and our oceans (and all other ecosystems) is intolerable from a moral viewpoint: we are harming, inflicting pain and killing animal life. That's just wrong. Also our own survival depends on all ecosystems which provide many benefits to us. When we destroy an ecosystem, we damage our own health, safety and welfare. So doing, we pay in other ways through huge health and social costs. Most of all, when we polllute our little piece of the planet or contribute to the destruction of all of the earth, we damage ourselves spiritually. There is no price that you can put on a human heart and soul.

So what are some answers?

It would be good to have a thorough discussion about recycling here in El Paso which would include a reminder of what we can and cannot recycle and what landfills that we should use. 

We may need to look into other ways of collection and at other brokers. I still think that the way we did it in the town that I lived in in Washington State makes sense. You separate materials in bins - aluminum and other metals, paper and glass. (Maybe skip the glass for now. The economics just aren't there. The third bin is for plastics.) The trucks have separate compartments for each. We sell our paper where we can get the best price or use it where we can cut costs elsewhere. (Shredded paper at the zoo for example.) We do the same thing with aluminum.

We should have and still ought to ban plastic bags in our stores. You can't tell me that someone can't afford a one dollar reusable bag for groceries or other items. We can even have reusable bag giveaways if that's what is needed.

We need to reduce plastics, recycle them responsibly and buy items that don't come in layers of plastic wrap. It's got to become a personal and a community value. I'm amazed when I go to a meeting of an environmental or outdoors group and see styrofoam cups for coffee and plastic water bottles. This behavior must change everywhere. 

Finally, as I posted before, the Swedish technology of turning trash into energy makes a great deal of sense. Of course, if we were to do that here, El Paso Electric will charge anyone with a trash bin an extra fee for not contributing to their mostly idle grid. Just a parting shot.

Fight El Paso Electric's proposed rate increases and their attack on the solar industry. Visit Eco El Paso to see how you can take action.


  1. Marshall Carter-TrippOctober 6, 2015 at 12:27 PM

    Regarding the plastic water bottle, it may be too late. EVERYWHERE you go you are offered a bottle of water. And yes, that includes events at organizations that should know better. At the very least recycling of these containers should be made easier, if not mandatory! And there is no question that plastic bags can be eliminated; it has been done. But it won't happen without sustained public education and determined leadership. While the article you reference has some good points, its overall argument that recycling is not worth it in cost-benefit terms is very harmful with regard to plastics. Money is not the only measure.

  2. I also whole heartedly support the ban on plastic bags. They are an unnecessary evil and could so easily be eliminated in one whole go by refusing to supply them in all shops. A small levy on them has encouraged some to use other methods, but it's still not good enough. As for recycling; it's more education that is needed.