The near bottomless virtue of recycling has become an article of faith amongst environmental activists and a whole generation of children in their tutelage. In today’s world, recycling is supposed to be atonement for the sin of consumption, the difference between being a parasite on the earth or a custodian saving future generations.
This Salvationist aura makes it all the more interesting to look at some basic numbers behind recycling and see just how different they are from the imagery some promote.
Perhaps the most common imagery is that of landfills running out of space and cities being buried in garbage. Until recently, the City of Ottawa’s website subtly inferred this trashy spectre by pointing out that the city’s garbage could fill Scotiabank Place three times a week. By contrast, applying some numbers paints this anecdote into a very small corner.
Even if Canada doubled its population and the waste per person over the next one hundred years, Canada could still preserve 99 per cent of its land mass (i.e., make it off-limits to landfills) with one per cent remaining one for land filling over that period. One percent of that reserved one percent would be required for landfilling. For perspective, that’s about one hundredth of the urbanised area and on seven-hundredth of the area used for agriculture. Whatever they may lack in emotive appeal, these numbers quickly put to rest any notion that Canada faces a landfill crisis.
Some will say that the toxic pollution leaching from landfills means that any area is too large, but as the Union of Concerned Scientists has pointed out, very little of the waste in landfills is toxic. Combined with modern environmental engineering and risk management, landfills simply do not pose a measurable threat to human health. What’s more, former landfill sites can be reclaimed as usable land. The city of New York is now turning its once infamous Fresh Kills landfill into a park three times larger than Central Park.
The “Save a tree” story reveals a similar gap between recycling rhetoric and numerical reality. Countless email taglines end with pleas not to print on paper, while groups like Greenpeace present images of clear cut forests as if we face a hard choice between toilet paper and losing all trees.
But Canada’s forests cover has been stable for fifteen years; trees harvested for paper products each year are one ninth of one percent of the total area. By provincial policy, these trees must be and are replanted and the level of harvesting is below the Annual Allowable Cut that provincial governments deem sustainable. Again, there is a need to be realistic about the problems that recycling is supposed to solve.
Recycling is always pushed as the “green” option, but implicit in the two examples above is that environmental harms are best regulated at the point of the harm, rather than the point of consumption. The cost of dumping and replacing paper or any other material includes the cost of complying with environmental regulations, in this case those concerning forestry and landfills.
Unlike the other two “R’s,” reducing and reusing, recycling itself is an industrial process which consumes scarce resources. If recycling cannot compete on a cost basis against dumping and replacing, then its cost may suggest that it is wasteful. This is particularly true when you put a value on human time. Then, recycling can be and sometimes is wasteful.
When governments confront the dilemma of how to deal with waste, their outlook should be onto hard numbers instead of the sometimes fanciful imagery put about in support of recycling. So long as the alternatives to recycling are complying with proper environmental regulation, then financial cost is the only remaining justification for doing it.
None of this is to say recycling should not be done. It is often the most cost-effective solution to waste disposal and in these cases it is certainly the best. The problem is that recycling has reached a quasi-spiritual status in many minds, to the extent that it can flourish on the wings of selective anecdotes and misleading imagery because it feels good.
That’s all the more unfortunate because caring for the environment is not a spiritual exercise. It is a scientific project based on a rigorous knowledge of the natural world. Making decisions based on fanciful anecdotes because they feel good just won’t cut it, and they leave recycling as just another luxury for rich societies.