Out of Control Policy Blog

Recycled Recycling Myths in Seattle

Did you know that it's now illegal in Seattle to not recycle? There was a great piece by James Thayer in the Weekly Standard recently highlighting the absurdity of this latest effort to promote recycling:

    On January 1, placing more than 10 percent recyclable materials into a garbage bin became illegal in Seattle. An offending bin is tagged with a bright yellow slip that announces, "Recycle. It's not garbage anymore." The un-emptied bin is then left at the curb in hopes that the homeowner will learn the lesson and remove the reusable material by next week's collection. Businesses that offend three times are fined $50.

    . . . .

    Echoing widespread Seattle sentiment (85 percent of the city's citizens approve of curbside recycling), the Seattle Times editorial board has concluded that "Recycling is a good thing." After all, using a bottle twice must be better than using it once, saving resources and sparing the landfill.

    The truth, though, is that recycling is an expense, not a savings, for a city. "Every community recycling program in America today costs more than the revenue it generates," says Dr. Jay Lehr of the Heartland Institute.

Thayer's piece is well worth a read and debunks some prevalent recycling myths. Among them:

  • Aren't we running out of landfill space? No.
      Clemson Professor Daniel K. Benjamin notes that rather than running out of space, overall capacity is growing. "In fact," he says, "the United States today has more landfill capacity than ever before." He adds that the total land area required to contain every scrap of this country's garbage for the next 100 years would be only 10 miles square. The Nevada Policy Research Institute's numbers are even more dramatic: an area 44 miles square and 120 feet deep would handle all of America's garbage for the next millennium.
  • Aren't landfills a public health hazard? No.
      America's image of landfills was fixed decades ago, and is that of Staten Island's Fresh Kills, a vast swampy expanse of detritus, with huge Caterpillar tractors trundling over it, and clouds of seagulls obscuring everything above ground. Fresh Kills received New York's garbage for 53 years before it was closed in 2001. Modern landfills have nothing in common with the place. Benjamin says that new landfills are located far from groundwater supplies, and are built on thick clay beds that are covered with plastic liners, on top of which goes another layer of sand or gravel. Pipes remove leachate, which is then treated at wastewater plants. Escaping gas is burned or sold. A park or golf course or industrial development eventually goes over the landfill.

      Fresh Kills also looked dangerous, a veritable soup of deadly poisons and nasty chemicals, seeping and dissolving and dispersing. But that's not the case with new landfills. Daniel Benjamin writes, "According to the EPA's own estimates, modern landfills can be expected to cause 5.7 cancer-related deaths over the next 300 years--just one death every 50 years. To put this in perspective, cancer kills over 560,000 people every year in the United States."

  • Aren't we saving natural resources by recycling? Hardly.
      Almost 90 percent of this country's paper comes from renewable forests, and to say we will someday run out of trees is the same as saying we will some day run out of corn. According to [Cato's] Jerry Taylor, we are growing 22 million acres of new forest each year, and we harvest 15 million acres, for a net annual gain of 7 million acres. The United States has almost four times more forested land today than it did 80 years ago.

      Are we running out of that other staple of recycle bins, glass? All those wine and beer bottles are manufactured from silica dioxide, the fancy term for sand, which Jay Lehr points out is the most abundant mineral in the earth's crust.

      Nor will we ever suffer a shortage of plastic, which is made from petroleum byproducts. Today more petroleum reserves are being discovered than are being used up. And plastics can now also be synthesized from farm products. Lehr concludes, "We are not running out of, nor will we ever run out of, any of the resources we recycle."

Be sure to check out Reason's recycling research for more info on the subject.

Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform


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