Volume 21, No.3, Fall 2003

Recycling Rubbish

By Daniel K. Benjamin

Governments on both shores of the Atlantic and both coasts of America have recently announced plans to force businesses and individuals to recycle more trash. The European Union has ordered the citizens of the United Kingdom to roughly double their recycling rates by 2008, while the city governments of New York and Seattle have proposed mandatory expansions of existing recycling programs.

These moves are not based on new developments in resource conservation; instead they-like other mandatory recycling programs-rest on misconceptions of mythic proportions. This essay discusses the most egregious of these myths.

Since the 1980s, people repeatedly have claimed that the United States faces a landfill crisis. Former Vice President Al Gore, for example, asserted we are "running out of ways to dispose of our waste in a manner that keeps it out of either sight or mind" (Gore 1992, 145).

This claim originated in the 1980s, when the waste disposal industry moved to using fewer but much larger landfills. The Environmental Protection Agency, the press, and other commentators focused on the falling number of landfills, rather than on their growing overall capacity, and concluded that we were running out of space. The EPA also underestimated the prospects for creating additional capacity.

In fact, the United States today has more landfill capacity than ever before. In 2001, the nation’s landfills could accommodate 18 years’ worth of rubbish, an amount 25 percent greater than a decade before. To be sure, there are a few places where capacity has shrunk. But the uneven distribution of available landfill space is no more important than is the uneven distribution of auto manufacturing: Trash is an interstate business, with 47 states exporting the stuff and 45 importing it. Indeed, the total land area needed to hold all of America’s garbage for the next century would be only about 10 miles square.

The claim that our trash might poison us is impossible to completely refute, because almost anything might pose a threat. But the EPA itself acknowledges that the risks to humans (and presumably plants and animals) from modern landfills are virtually nonexistent: Modern landfills can be expected to cause 5.7 cancer-related deaths over the next 300 years-one every 50 years. To put this in perspective, cancer kills over 560,000 people every year in the United States (EPA 1990, 1991; Goodstein 1995).

Older landfills do possess a potential for harm to the ecosystem and to humans, especially when built on wetlands (or swamps), because pollutants can leach from them. When located on dry land, however, even old-style landfills generally pose minimal danger, in part because remarkably little biodegradation takes place in them.

Modern landfills eliminate essentially any potential for problems. Siting occurs away from groundwater supplies, and the landfills are built on a foundation of several feet of dense clay, covered with thick plastic liners. This layer is covered by several feet of gravel or sand. Any leachate is drained out via collection pipes and sent to municipal wastewater plants for treatment. Methane gas produced by biodegradation is drawn off by wells on site and burned or purified and sold.

Contrary to current wisdom, packaging can reduce total rubbish produced. The average household in the United States generates one third less trash each year than does the average household in Mexico, partly because packaging reduces breakage and food waste. Turning a live chicken into a meal creates food waste. When chickens are processed commercially, the waste goes into marketable products (such as pet food), instead of into a landfill. Commercial processing of 1,000 chickens requires about 17 pounds of packaging, but it also recycles at least 2,000 pounds of by-products.

The gains from packaging have been growing over time, because companies have been reducing the weight of the packages they use. During the late 1970s and 1980s, although the number of packages entering landfills rose substantially, the total weight of those discards declined by 40 percent. Over the past 25 years the weights of individual packages have been reduced by amounts ranging from 30 percent (2- liter soft drink bottles) to 70 percent (plastic grocery sacks and trash bags). Even aluminum beverage cans weigh 40 percent less than they used to (Rathje and Murphy 1992, ch 4).

Numerous commentators contend that each state should achieve "trash independence" by disposing within its borders all of its rubbish. But, as with all voluntary trade, interstate trade in trash raises our wealth as a nation, perhaps by as much as $4 billion. Most of the increased wealth accrues to the citizens of areas importing trash.

Not only is the potential threat posed by modern landfills negligible, but transporting rubbish across state lines has no effect on the environmental impact of its disposal. Moving a ton of trash by truck is no more hazardous than moving a ton of any other commodity.

In fact, available stocks of most natural resources are growing rather than shrinking, but the reason is not recycling (Foster and Rosenzweig 2003).

Market prices are the best measure of natural resource scarcity. Rising prices imply that a resource is getting more scarce. Falling prices imply that it is becoming more plentiful. Applying this measure to oil, we find that over the past 125 years, oil has become no more scarce, despite our growing use of it. Reserves of other fossil fuels as well as other natural resources are also growing.

Thanks to innovation, we now produce about twice as much output per unit of energy as we did 50 years ago and five times as much as we did 200 years ago. Optical fiber carries 625 times more calls than the copper wire of 20 years ago, bridges are built with less steel, and automobile and truck engines consume less fuel per unit of work performed. The list goes on and on. Human innovation continues to increase the amount of resources at our command.

Recycling is a manufacturing process with environmental impacts. Viewed across a wide spectrum of goods, recycling sometimes cuts pollution, but not always. The EPA has examined both virgin paper processing and recycled paper processing for toxic substances and found that toxins often are more prevalent in the recycling processes.

Often the pollution associated with recycling shows up in unexpected ways. Curbside recycling, for example, requires that more trucks be used to collect the same amount of waste materials. Thus, Los Angeles has 800 rubbish trucks rather than 400, because of its curb-side recycling. This means more iron ore and coal mining, steel and rubber manufacturing, petroleum extraction and refining-and of course extra air pollution in the Los Angeles basin.

It is widely claimed that recycling "saves resources." Proponents usually focus on savings of a specific resource, or they single out particularly successful examples such as the recycling of aluminum cans.

But using less of one resource generally means using more of other resources. Franklin Associates, a firm that consults on behalf of the EPA, has compared the costs per ton of handling rubbish through three methods: disposal into landfills (but with a voluntary drop-off or buy-back recycling program), a baseline curbside recycling program, and an extensive curbside recycling program.

On average, extensive recycling is 35 percent more costly than conventional disposal, and basic curbside recycling is 55 percent more costly than conventional disposal. That is, curbside recycling uses far more resources. As one expert puts it, adding curbside recycling is "like moving from once-a-week garbage collection to twice a week" (Bailey 1995, A8).

This view reflects ignorance about the extent of recycling in the private sector, which is as old as trash itself. Scavenging may, in fact, be the oldest profession. In the 19th century, people bid for the right to scavenge New York City’s rubbish, and Winslow Homer’s 1859 etching, Scene on the Back Bay Lands (see cover of this issue), reveals adults and children digging through the detritus of the Boston city dump. Rag dealers were a constant of American life until driven out of business

by the federal Wool Products Labeling Act of 1939, which stigmatized products made of recycled wool and cotton. And long before state or local governments had even contemplated the word recycling, makers of steel, aluminum, and many other products were recycling manufacturing scraps, and some were even operating post-consumer drop-off centers.

Recycling is a long-practiced, productive, indeed essential, element of the market system. Informed, voluntary recycling conserves resources and raises our wealth. In sharp contrast, misleading educational programs encourage the waste of resources when they overstate the benefits of recycling. And mandatory recycling programs, in which people are compelled to do what they know is not sensible, routinely make society worse off. Market prices are sufficient to induce the trashman to come, and to make his burden bearable, and neither he nor we can hope for any better than that.

Bailey, Jeff. 1995. Waste of a Sort: Curbside Recycling Comforts the Soul, But Benefits Are Scant. Wall Street Journal, January 19.
Environmental Protection Agency. 1990. Regulatory Impact Analysis for the Final Criteria for Municipal Solid Waste Landfills. Washington, DC: EPA, Office of Solid Waste. —. 1991. Addendum to the Regulatory Impact Analysis for the Final Criteria for Municipal Solid Waste Landfills. Washington, DC: EPA, Office of Solid Waste.
Foster, Andrew D., and Mark R. Rosenzweig. 2003. Economic Growth and the Rise of Forests. Quarterly Journal of Economics 118(2): 601Ð37.
Franklin Associates, Ltd. 1997. Solid Waste Management at the Crossroads. Prairie Village, KS.
Goodstein, Eban. 1995. Benefit-Cost Analysis at the EPA. Journal of Socio-Economics 24: 374Ð89.
Gore, Al. 1992. Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Rathje, William, and Cullen Murphy. 1992. Rubbish: The Archaeology of Garbage. New York: HarperCollins.

Daniel K. Benjamin is professor of economics at Clemson University, a senior associate of PERC, and a regular PERC Reports columnist. This essay is adapted from a longer paper, "Eight Great Myths of Recycling," forthcoming from PERC.

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