Environmental Theater

Via Maggies Farm, much of your recycling ends up in a landfill, so that much of our recycling effort is just an empty ritual, a ceremony of dedication to the Earth mother god without any actual consequences.  I have written for years that only aluminum and certain other metals really makes economic sense to recycle, so effort on all those other materials is just a fiscal loss to municipalities to save landfill space that is not really even running short.  Given this, it is not surprising that, behind our backs, cash-strapped local governments are just dumping it.

This is a theme of my comments next week at a forum on alternative energy -- no business model (save perhaps farming, which the public seems willing to subsidize forever) is sustainable if it requires constant subsidies - at some point, the public wearies of the fiscal drain, or the growth of the business makes the subsidies too large to sustain.

By the way, don't even get me started on the government-enforced labor involved.  10 minutes a week per person is 2.6 billion man-hours a year of forced labor.  I remember old Loony Tunes cartoons where some guy is sorting mail into slots and on the other side of the wall you see all the mail from the various slots being sent back into a single bag.  Given that the government forces us to expend this labor, forgetting the individual liberty aspects of it, is this really the best use of 2.6 billion man hours?

Postscript: Every time I write about recycling, I get this:  Well, we agree that mostly it does not save energy and we agree it does not save money (even though we told everyone it did) but you are forgetting about landfill space.   OK, here is a take on landfill space -- it turns out that it is not running out, as technology and innovation  (and the profit motive) have expanded the capacity of existing landfills.


  1. DrTorch:

    If environmentalists consider it criminal not to curb greenhouse gases, then why aren't they up in arms about the wasted energy (and thus unnecessary emissions) involved with recycling?

    One more thing, dumps may actually be a more efficient way to allow recycling:

  2. Sotosoroto:

    Here in the People's Republic of Seattle, we're charged a sliding rate based on the size of our garbage can (and yardwaste bin), but the recycling is free. We can even leave out extra boxes of cardboard, glass, etc. for no charge.

    Therefore, I do achieve some small personal benefit by putting "recyclables" into the recycling instead of using a larger garbage can to hold everything.

    ... Doesn't stop me from griping about the forced labor, though.

  3. Mark:

    In Iowa the eco-ninnies created a law saying you can not create a new landfill on any land appropriate for Farming corn.

    Turns out the only land not suitable for farming corn is a lake or a river, so the state has an extreme (artificial) shortage of landfill space. Much of Iowa's trash is trucked into Illinois for disposal, and we all had to sort our trash 3 ways - yard/vegetable/compostable waste newspapers, jars and cans, and other waste. It took more then 10 minutes per week to get it right.

    This is all pretty silly because Iowa is a fairly large state, with a fairly small population. The entire population of Iowa is smaller then the number of people in Orange county, CA with is 1/60 the size of Iowa. There is plenty of free land for trash.

  4. greg:

    finally, something I can comment intelligently on.

    The blowmolding company I used to work for operated a recycling facility (plastics) and here are a few key points.

    1. it is only economically viable if it is located centrally to a large population center. In essence we needed very large volumes, and very short deliveries. Most of the cost is in the pickup of the materials.

    2. FDA rules preclude using this plastic for any food related packaging. Which meant 100% of what we made was sold into other industries.

    3. Plastic is not infinitely recyclable. Injection molders could use PCR (post consumer recycled) plastic, but only at the rate of about 15% by volume. Anything higher and you'll see serious processing issues with it.

    So yes, other than aluminum cans, it's pretty much a waste to try and recycle consumer packaging materials (at least from an economic perspective).

  5. bbartlog:

    'In Iowa the eco-ninnies created a law saying you can not create a new landfill on any land appropriate for Farming corn. '

    I would bet that if you dug deep enough you'd find that the real instigators (read: the ones who actually made the donations to the politicians who passed this) were either existing landfills or trash hauling companies who stood to benefit.
    The volume of trash that is generated in the US is certainly large, but when you break down the big numbers and just do some analysis as to (say) how much physical space we would have to set aside to make a giant trashpile for the next hundred years, it's just not that forbidding.
    All that said, I would like to see true cost injected into the system somehow. Since I can set out all the trash I want on the curb every Wednesday (within reason) neither I nor anyone upstream of me in the process has any incentive to minimize waste through better packaging. Germany's law regarding packaging (producer has to take it back and deal with it) seems too clumsy but it is at least one example of providing incentives back to the source.

  6. Kit:

    In the UK we are creating more holes through open cast mining than we are filling with landfill - I suspect the same is true in the US.

  7. DOuglas2:

    From the postscript link - exactly five years ago, you predicted that in five years we would have a glut of domestic natural gas supply, because of new technology for extraction. That would be now.

  8. Terrence:

    I saw a survey awhile ago that clearly showed that the USA does NOT create that much trash. At least, not when compared to third world countries. Mexico, for example, creates a lot more trash per person than the USA. This due primarily because it is not particularly industrialized. Poultry plants do not create anywhere near the waste per chicken, turkey, bird, that a Mexican farmer does - they use lots of it (feathers are sold, etc); one of the many advantages of the economies of scale.

    Like most environmentalism, recycling is a way to make the eco-Nazis FEEL good about themselves - it LOOKS like they are "SAVING" the planet, and they claim to be doing just that. What they are really doing is making others spend "2.6 billion man-hours a year of forced labor" and costing vast amounts of money at the same time.

  9. Mark:


    I agree with you about packaging, when I was in Iowa sorting everything, I was continually frustrated by what seemed to be way too much packaging for most goods.

    Here in CA I just purchased a phone set from Costco, and it was missing the batteries so I returned it to a second Costco which happened to be more convenient at the time. I picked up the exact same phone set. The one I returned was in the huge blister pack. It was probably 20" wide 5" high, and 12" deep. I picked up the exact same model, and it was packed efficiently at this store in a pack a bit bigger then a large kleenex box.

    I was shocked - why the heck did they make the first box with so much extra packaging for Costco - we don't look at the pack - we look at the Costco display.

    As for the law, I don't know how it happened. Many of the disposal facilities are run by the city and county however - rather then private firms and it has only been recently that the stuff has been trucked, as existing fills get filled up. There has been an effort to look into co-generation to just burn the stuff - but you know who is against this too.

  10. kebko:

    If Douglas2 is right, that's pretty impressive.

  11. smurfy:

    This is why I wish they would sell more good beers in cans.

  12. Doug:

    Years ago, the State of Michigan required that every county have a landfill. That, however, made each landfill a potential destination for out of state trash. At least recently, Toronto was trucking its trash into a landfill in Michigan, much to the dismay and anger of the local residents. Seems they objected to the hundreds of trucks and smell. Apparently, it is to end. http://www.cbc.ca/canada/toronto/story/2006/08/31/trash-michigan.html

  13. DOuglas2:

    In the UK I would routinely rescue items from the town waste-transfer dropoff location. Home would come the concrete paver bricks, furniture, repairable small appliances, and on two occasions le Crueset cookware with seriously baked-on gunk that succumbed easily to the power-washer after a detergent soak.

    Friends wondered why we were always so willing to give a lawnmower or vacuum cleaner away to anyone who needed one. When they come to you so easily...

  14. bob sykes:

    Anyone interested in recycling/solid waste management should read William Rathje and Cullen Murphy's "Rubbish: The Archaeology of Garbage."

    Rathje does archaeological digs on landfills to see what's in them. Really eye-opening data. He also discusses in detail recycling and its woes.

    When I taught solid waste management to environmental engineers, I stole a weeks worth of lectures from this book.

    To cut to the chase: all the critics of recylcing are right.

  15. richard:


    I read your post on landfills, which was from aug 2005. The last sentence got me puzzling:

    > My prediction: Five years from now, we will be seeing the same article on oil and natural gas. "This oil field in west Texas is over 80 years old, and was thought to be depleted, until $60 oil prices and some new technology…." You get the idea

    So here we are, 5 years from back then. How about that west Texas oil field? Oil is now well over $60 for multiple years so if technology is as leading as you say it is, we should see a lot more oil coming from texas by now.

  16. Michael not Mann:


    Drilling for oil in the US is banned for the most part. Why do you think Mexico and Canada are our biggest suppliers? The same goes for metal casting and wood products.

  17. Pat Mofitt:

    Here is a quote you might be able to use by environmental activist Robert Gottlieb (the Henry R. Luce Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Director of the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College in Los Angeles) from his book "Forcing the Spring" Gottlieb calls recycling a "cultural expression." And:

    'Thousands of new recycling centers were established with the mission of personal transformation and environmental consciousness-raising rather than the development of a viable recycling business."

    The perfect response to consciousness raising comes from Sir Isaiah Berlin "But to manipulate men, to propel them towards goals which you -- the social reformers -- see, but they may not, is to deny their human essence, to treat them as objects without wills of their own, and therefore to degrade them." Two Concepts of Liberty, 1958.

  18. Bill:

    In my community of Logan, Utah, mandated recycling was implemented a few years ago. (Actually, recycling is not mandated, but every household and business must pay a monthly rental fee on an individual recycling dumpster positioned at the home or business. Whether or not you choose to put anything in the dumpster and wheel it to the curb for pick up is not YET policed.) Anyway, an economist serving on the municipal council calculated that, in the most "optimistic" case regarding peoples' participation in this recycling program, the materials diverted from the local landfill would extend the life of the landfill by 17 months at an undiscounted cost to taxpayers and participants of $12 million. Talk about spending a dollar to save 50 cents!

  19. MGW:

    I also grew up in the subburbs of Seattle and witnessed the same thing. Basically, you pay for trash by the size of your trash can (at least where I lived, trash pickup was by a for-profit company afterall) and then you recycle for free (I had always assumed that the proceeds from selling your stuff (aluminium, etc.) made it economically viable to pick it up for free, though this may not be the case). If the government is going to encourage you to recycle, this is a far better way than the alternative. Imagine my surprise when I moved to the east coast (which had tax-dollar paid for trash pickup) and found out that you could be fined for not recycling. They would actually go through your trash and penalize you if they found recyclables. I'll take the Seattle version any day.

  20. Foxfier:

    Up until about 20 years ago, my family did a lot of recycling with next to no cost associated with it-- when we'd take a load to the dump, we'd go through the pile of stuff folks thought someone might want, or even go down in the pit if we spotted something that looked interesting. A bit risky, but fun and a great way to get treasures. Then Cali made it illegal to take garbage out of a dump, required that the place be manned, which meant it suddenly cost a LOT...so now all the treasures are scattered, either under dirt at the landfill, in a burn-pit on someone's land, or thrown off a "handy" cliff up in the woods.

    My parents still recycle more than anyone else I know, just because reusing or re-purposing is cheaper.

  21. Peter:

    Well I am someone actually looking into getting into composting. Where I live the local landfills are all closed and everything is being shipped away. This results in very high costs for disposal. Just rough estimates suggest that I can locally divert between 20 and 50% of the waste stream towards composting. With the highly liberal mindset of my area I can probably count on reasonably well separated materials. Add in the fact that between tipping fees and compost sales I believe I can have a profitable company while still charging the customer less for their trash disposal. our local dumps (transfer stations) already provide incentive for recycling cardboard, newspaper, plastic and aluminum by not charging for those material if they are well separated. It is my understanding that these materials are able to be sold for a sufficient price to pay for their shipment. However if they are not well separated they end up going to the closest incinerator. While I have been told that providing a local composting area may result in the state mandating separation of materials in the nearby towns It is not something I want to count on. I don't want to be in the policing garbage business and a disgruntled resident wont take the time for proper separation which would exponentially increase the headaches in the composting business (the costs too).