Monday, October 09, 2006

Is recycling bad for the environment?

Yesterday I came across an article about the negative impacts of recycling (for a more entertaining version of essentially the same information, watch Penn and Teller’s Bullshit!) This is the kind of article that I hate to love. While thought-provoking, it gives me enough epistemological nightmares to reconsider having an opinion on anything. If recylcing isn’t good for the environment, what is?

The author, economist Daniel K. Benjamin, concludes from his research that, at best, recycling is a waste of money, and, at worst, adversely affects the environment. He cites ‘8 myths’ about recycling:

  1. “Our garbage will bury us”
  2. “Our garbage will poison us”
  3. “Packaging is our problem”
  4. “We must achieve trash independence”
  5. “We squander irreplacable resources when we don’t recycle”
  6. “Recycling always protects the environment”
  7. “Recycling saves resources”
  8. “Without forced recycling mandates, there wouldn’t be recycling”
He counters these myths by arguing that there is ample and increasing land fill capacity which is, by the EPA’s own admission, environmentally safe; packaging actually saves resources; trash is a good which should be traded between states; we are not running out of resources (paper, aluminum, oil [here I would disagree]); recycling costs and pollutes more than making a new product; when it does save resources, private industry recycles without government incentive. For the most part, assuming his data are correct, I argee with Benjamin, though I am a bit skeptical because many of his citations come from the same few sources.

Benjamin currently works for a think-tank called Property and Environmental Research Center (PERC), which advocates market based approaches to environmental problems. After having browsed their webpage, I have mixed opinions. On the one hand, they offer some salient advice. For example, they advocate letting National Parks manage their own finances, allowing them to charge consumers what their services really cost. This would enable the parks to stop losing money and protect resources degraded by overuse. On the other hand, they cite the Endangered Species Act as a failure because it has only rescued a small percentage of listed species. Obviously, they don’t know their biology. Check out the Science article I have posted below for one of many great responses to criticism of the ESA.

In conclusion, I am not sure what to think of recycling, Benjamin, or the PERC. While they smack of libertarianism, PERC raises some thought provoking points and even give Bush a bad rap for his environmental policy. The take home message is that seemingly simple issues like recycling can be quite complex. Hopefully, I can investigate further on this subject and eventually come to my own, well-informed opinion.



Dave Marlow said...

Excellent post. Thanks for the link, also.

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nicole.wp said...

There are some valid points in the article, but some completely false ones too. The author is trying to claim that we'll never run out of oil or other non-renewable resources!

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Sail Nut said...

Mr. Benjamin points out that the usual justifications for the religious fervor for recycling are based on unsupported assumptions and fallacious reasoning. Is it unfortunate that the analysis he presents of the contrary position seems to reflect another unsupported assumption: that private cost is equivalent to societal cost.

What we need is a reasonably objective study of what the societal benefits of recycling are and whether they justify the subsidies we've added to encourage them. Mr. Benjamin's analysis, flawed as it is, is as close as I've come across.