The Recycling Religion

For decades, we’ve been told: recycle!

“If we’re not using recycled paper, we’re cutting down more trees!” says Lynn Hoffman, co-president of Eureka Recycling.

Recycling paper (or cardboard) does save trees. Recycling aluminum does save energy. But that’s about it.

The ugly truth is that many “recyclables” sent to recycling plants are never recycled. The worst is plastic.

Even Greenpeace now says, “Plastic recycling is a dead-end street.”

Hoffman often trucks it to a landfill.

Years ago, science writer John Tierney wrote a New York Times Magazine story, “Recycling Is Garbage.” It set a Times record for hate mail.

But what he wrote was true.

“It’s even more true today,” says Tierney in my new video. “Recycling is an industry that uses increasingly expensive labor to produce materials that are worth less and less.”

It would be smarter to just dump our garbage in landfills.

People think landfills are horrible polluters. But they’re not. Regulations (occasionally, government regulations are actually useful) make sure today’s landfills have protective barriers so they don’t leak.

Eventually, landfills are turned into good things: ski hills, parks and golf courses.

But aren’t we running out of landfill space? For years, alarmist media said we were. But that’s not true.

In 1987, media gave lots of publicity to a garbage barge that traveled thousands of miles trying and failing to find a place to dump its load.

But that barge wasn’t rejected because there was a lack of room. States turned the barge away after hysterical media suggested it contained “infectious waste.” The Environmental Protection Agency later found it was normal garbage.

Landfills have plenty of room for that. In fact, America has more space than we will ever need. Sometimes states and businesses even compete to get our garbage.

“If you think of the United States as a football field,” says Tierney, “all the garbage that we will generate in the next 1,000 years would fit inside a tiny fraction of the one-inch line.”

Putting garbage in landfills is often much cheaper than recycling. My town would save $340 million a year if it just stopped recycling.

But they won’t, “because people demand it,” says Tierney. “It’s a sacrament of the green religion.”

The religion’s commandments are complex. New York City orders me to: “Place recyclables at the curb between 4 PM and midnight … Rinse plastic containers … Separate paper from plastic, metal, and glass.” Paper must be tied “with twine into bundles no taller than 18 inches,” and so on.

“That’s one reason recycling fails,” says Tierney. “It’s so complicated; people never learn the rules.”

Worse, some recycling is pointless, or harmful.

“If you rinse a plastic bottle in hot water,” Tierney points out, “the net result is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than if you threw it in the garbage.”

Since most plastic can’t be recycled, what’s the environmentalists’ solution now?

“Stop producing it,” says Greenpeace’s John Hocevar.

Lots of environmental groups now want to ban plastic.

That’s just silly. Plastic is useful. Using it often creates fewer emissions than its alternatives. Plastic bags create fewer than paper bags. A metal straw has to be used 150 times before it creates less pollution than a plastic straw.

Environmental groups rarely mention that, or how they misled us about recycling year after year.

“It’s appalling that after telling people for three decades to recycle, they don’t even apologize for all the time and money that they wasted,” complains Tierney. “Instead, they have a proposal (banning plastic) that will make life even worse.”

Plastic is not evil. Recycling is no climate savior. When Los Angeles mandated it, they added 400 big noisy garbage trucks.

That creates lots of pollution.

But environmentalists still demand we do things like pick through our trash, switch from plastic to paper bags that rip. California even banned small plastic shampoo bottles

“Some of these rules are just so arbitrary and silly,” complains Tierney. “It’s simply a way for greens and for some politicians to pretend that they’re saving the planet.”

Photo by SHVETS production

24 thoughts on “The Recycling Religion

  1. But glass CAN be recycled. So those huge plastic laundry soap bottles could be made of glass and returned as recyclable. And the same with large soda bottles now made with plastic. Remember the movie…The Graduate? Some time in the early sixties and one of the characters says “remember plastics” as some new invention just coming out! It’s like taking your finger out of the hole in the dam! You could never stop the rush.

    1. Glass is made from sand. Sand is $2 a ton. The amount of money to take the glass bottles to a glass plant is more than they are worth because unless they are crushed they are mostly air. They usually layer them into garbage to help chew it up.

    2. Glass also breaks when you drop it or crash into it. Plastic doesn’t. The savings from that factor alone is huge.

      Glass weighs more per container than plastic. The savings from that factor alone is also significant.

    3. Except if you make that big laundry detergent or soda bottle out of glass, it’ll have to be thick glass to not break at the slightest bump. Large thick glass bottles are _heavy_. Way heavier than a plastic bottle of the same size. The big 18 wheeler that carries those bottles to the store can’t haul unlimited weight. That means to get the same number of bottles to the store, you’ll have to run extra trucks. That means more pollution. (Yes, even with a Tesla truck. That electricity comes from a power plant burning something somewhere.)

    4. As it turns out, it’s not that easy to recycle glass. Some places have stopped taking glass for recycling because it’s more expensive to recycle it than to make more…so the localities have to either pay people to take it off their hands (at a higher cost than if they took it from the recycling center to the landfill themselves).

  2. I’ve been saying this for years, but what started all this is people littering. We had some really great campaigns, commericials and newspaper ads going reminding people not to litter and I think it was working – BUT WHERE ARE THEY NOW? Still people litter and will for ages to come, but some still need reminding. Recycling has caused trash collection services to increase because of the cost of building a recycle plant and hire people to work it and then what happens most of that trash ends up going to the dump in the first place. Its just another way for government to cypher money out of its citizens because you know that get a cut of it. I refuse to recycle and I will not until its a federal law and I am literally forced to, but I’ll be darn if I will wash my trash before I trash it. I do reuse or repurpose a lot of containers that food came in or fix something broken instead of trashing it. You can do a lot with spray paint, glue, duct tape and regular bathroom caulking. I feel that the recycling burden has been placed more on consumers than the manufacturers. The government needs to go after the manufacturers and regulate what they make out of plastic. Their products have caused more harm than good – even if some things they make have been useful, often many have later been found to be harmful and/or inefficient. Yet they still make them. Heck, we did fine in the ole days without a lot of these things and people can do so now. Thanks for this article.

  3. ? A claim is made that plastics are not being recycled or can’t be recycled, but no interviews or statements of fact are provided to support the claim. When I buy something plastic in the store ‘made from recycled materials’ or ‘post consumer content’ are those materials and content not plastic???

    1. He stated “most” plastics are not recyclable, not “all” plastics. Some plastics are recycled and wind up back in the grocery store, but only a small fraction.

  4. You mention paper and aluminum. I was wondering about glass. I see claims that it can be endlessly recycled and that doing so cuts down on carbon emissions, but I don’t know how true any of that is, and I don’t have any expertise or know any experts to confirm it.

  5. Please contact me. I have a proven solution for the plastic problem. The problem is there is no way cost way to separate the plastic types. Very simply under heat and pressure the plastics turn back to oil and metals mixed in ok. No sorting period. Technology over 20 years old.

    1. Agree mostly. I proposed something similar years ago (and sought a research grant from Chevron) to take chopped and shredded plastic to a ‘dirty’ (meaning a low crude-purity) cracking tower in a refinery. The cracking tower breaks out the aromatics, etc and at WORST, the heavy polymer chains end up in the tar level of the cracking tower – goes to asphalt for roads.

      The financial side has options – the fuel company can charge a drop fee ($1 added to your refuel event when you drop a bag off) at the pump, shred on-site into a dumpster-trailer, a service truck hauls back to the fuel depot (contract w/large footprint carrier), bulk haul back to the refinery (shipping container trailer), sift for metals (no washing), reprocess, sell the tar to the asphalt plant (could even have a ‘Green’ surcharge if the market will bear it).

      It would be a huge press opportunity, particularly for handling the Atlantic and Pacific Gyre materials.

      It takes a forward thinking oil company to risk lower yield in a few refineries to gain global attention and actually make a difference. Imagine how it could impact the mountains of plastic trash in foreign countries like India, southeast asia, Africa, etc!

      A side benefit is that its a natural for recycling plastic motor oil bottles. Recycling companies don’t take them, they end up in the landfill. One estimate I read suggests that if each motor oil bottle contains approximately 1/4 teaspoon of residual oil. The total amount of oil in those bottles is equivalent to the amount of oil spilled by three (3) Exxon Valdez oil spills, EVERY YEAR! Its simply distributed across all the landfills in the US.

      I’m a retired engineer, conservative in nearly all things, but what we are doing is pretty stupid.

      PS. @John Stossel, great job, love your reporting. Between yourself, Sharryl Atkisson, Mike Rowe, and Megyn Kelly I think the BS in our world is pretty well reported.

  6. We can at least reduce plastic use. All drinks taste better in glass. I don’t mind filling up jugs for detergent , motor oil, or drinks even. Many cases the dam jug costs more than the product itself, pop and water for example. My fear though big business will keep all the money saved on the jugs instead of passing on.

    1. Why? To make you feel better? I don’t care what you think. We don’t have to do what you think. Don’t use plastic if you don’t want to. I don’t care. You can fill jugs all you want. But I have no interest. So go pound sand. Go live in the Stone Age if you want. I have no interest.

  7. Great “get you thinking” article, Mr. Stossel.

    The idea of getting rid of plastic containers and returning to glass isn’t as cut and dried as some may first imagine. The plastic container can be thinner and is lighter, so more can fit on a truck than if glass. Even being thicker, some glass will be broken. The waste of product and container due to breakage cuts into any benefits and must be factored in to an honest cost-benefit analysis.

    I have plastic Tupperware and glass Pyrex (with plastic lids) – each container type has it’s place!

    Recycle (selectively)

    1. A case could be that a “tipping point” was reached when single-use plastic shopping bags were banned. Besides being one of the most recycled consumer items (made great kitchen garbage bags, didnt they?); the amount of PE and/or PP used in each single-use bag is so small that you’d have to use your meth-dealing neighbors’ gram scale to weigh it. The big city fathers that first instituted the bans were reacting to the visual blight caused by littering the bags, so in typical knee-jerk reaction, rather than fining the litterers, the average law-abiding non-litterers (us) lost our convenient and free bags. (Reminds one of gun controller “logic”.)
      Over time this out-of-sight-out-of-mind approach led to our current mess, i.e., just recycle everything to save Gaia and we’ll all sleep better while blissfully ignoring the sheer irony of the recycling mandates’ results.

  8. A number of facilities turn plastic back into a petroleum product. These are generally 2nd generation technology. We probably need at least one more generation to make this process cost effective.

  9. Glass is not a very good option. Glass breaks– in the store, in homes and on the roads when littered. Cuts on people, tires, animals etc do not happen with plastic. Soda bottles (in the 1960’s), on rare but not insignificant number of instances, self shattered (flaws is glass+carbonation pressure+heat)
    resulting in severe injuries— eye injuries being the most prevelant.
    Also, the energy requirements for processing glass are much higher than for plastic. Glass cannot be easily produced in complex shapes, eg containers with handles. The densily of glass and the necessary wall thickness precludes large continers like gallon size containers (think Chlorox or laundry detergent).
    What ever happened to the Trash to Steam proposals?

  10. My Town’s Public Works Head reports that we can no longer sell our recyclables, but now must pay to have them hauled away. The market is screaming that the economics of recyclables just isn’t there. We oughta listen.

    As of now, I’m turning a page. I will continue to recycle paper, cardboard, metal cans, and glass. That’s all.

  11. Nearly all of Sweden’s non-recycled waste is burned to generate electricity and heat. It’s a method that, while emitting CO2, is far better for the climate than sending garbage to landfills, according to the Swedish government and proponents of waste-to-energy technology.
    It is all oil anyway, Why not get two uses out of it than burying it. Someday we may mine landfills for energy, who knows.
    Case in point, visited our local landfill many years ago, the house i rented heated with wood. Here came a big dump truck full of construction off falls. Begged for that load, boss said it had to be buried, Liability don’t ya know. What crap!

  12. Why do we now buy water? There’s no flouride in it so kids’ teeth rot. It takes a massive amount of energy and some oil to make the bottle. Transportation costs are high. The water isn’t any better, or nominally so. If we went back to tap water for everything, we would save money, oil, energy, waste and money. Why don’t we do that?

  13. The reason we use so much plastic is it is cost effective. Glass, and even aluminum, are heavier and that added weight costs more during transportation. Glass is far more susceptible to breaking and that adds to the cost. When I grew up sodas and beers were in glass bottles and they were returned, cleaned out and refilled. There was no need to crush them up, melt them and recast them.

  14. When I moved into my home over 20 years ago the big push was recycle glass. Glass glass glass. Then one day the city sent out notices saying that glass recycling wasn’t “cost effective”. So, then, all of the hype about recycling glass and saving the planet came down to what everything else does: can we make enough money at it to satiate ourselves. The answer MUST be no since we haven’t been asked to recycle glass in about 10 years! I wonder, however, why glass was left out of the discussion here? Does NOBODY recycle glass anymore? Why not? If it can be recycled indefinitely then it seems to me that cost effective means COULD be developed IF there was truly value in doing so…

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