Scraponomics Episode 103: The Reign of Recycling Article in NYT

Oct 22, 2015, 03:36 PM

“Despite decades of exhortations and mandates, it’s still typically more expensive for municipalities to recycle household waste than to send it to a landfill.” — John Tierney, Columnist in the New York Times

On October 3rd, John Tierney, a columnist for the New York Times, wrote an article titled The Reign of Recycling, which aims to question whether recycling is worth doing. It received a lot of hate mail, of course. Even our national trade association submitted a detailed, disapproving response.

Here’s the thing. I thought the article was great. Could Tierney have been more specific about the differences, for example, between scrap recycling and municipal curb-side recycling? Yes. But his essential point is to ask ourselves if we’re focusing on the right things. Should we really be recycling everything, or should we focus on the things that are cost-effective to recycle?

There are multiple layers to this debate, but lets focus on cost versus benefit first. Tierney illustrates that to offset the greenhouse effects of an average coach flight from New York to London for one person, you’d have to recycle around 40,000 plastic bottles. That doesn’t even take into account the water people have to use to rinse the plastic containers beforehand, which uses even more energy. So, from a cost-benefit analysis, it does begs the question, Are we wasting our time with certain materials?

The part Tierney is either not talking about or doesn’t know about is that in the scrap-recycling industry, we only do it if the cost-benefit analysis makes sense. The reason you see it costing municipalities more and more money to recycle is because of 1) the way in which they collect material, and 2) many of them try to recycle everything regardless of the cost involved.

But what about limited landfill space and what’s morally the right to do? Let’s focus on those issues next.

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