Let’s Get Rational About Recycling: Good environmental custodians do what’s right, not just what feels right.

Worth A Look, Environment, David Seymour


When I was seven, I stood in front of my elementary school assembly and told everyone that our school should have an aluminum can recycling depot. With this personal history, I can understand why Sean Shaw (Let’s Get Serious about Recycling, August 5th) calls for city-wide curbside recycling. 
Mr. Shaw’s opinion piece argued we could save money on landfill space if only we adopted curbside recycling for a cost of eight dollars per household per month. Yet in the same breath he concedes that even allowing for provincial subsidies (there is only one taxpayer), revenue from selling recyclables, and landfill space savings, recycling will still cost.
The remaining cost of between three and five dollars per household has to be justified somehow, then, and Mr. Shaw offers the fact that the Council “vowed in 2007 to make Saskatoon a “zero waste” community.” So now, he intones, “it’s time for Saskatoon residents to step up and take responsibility for our waste.” 
OK, but if doing so is going to cost Saskatoon residents money, then what can they expect to get in return?
It can’t be space saved from landfills. Imagine that over the next one hundred years, Canada doubles its population, doubles its waste output per person, restricts landfills to ten metres in depth, and sections off 99 per cent of the country’s land mass from being considered for land filling. After 100 years, only one per cent of the remaining one per cent—or 1/10,000th of Canada’s land mass—would have been used for landfills. 
That would be an area one hundred times smaller than the area of Canada that is already urbanized. 
Could it be that landfills pollute? As the Union of Concerned Scientists has stated: … [O]rdinary trash [by and large does not pose] a serious health risk to the general public … and whatever risk it does pose will diminish with time as new landfill regulations take effect… In any case, most curbside recycling programs do nothing to eliminate hazardous substances from the waste stream, concentrating instead on glass, paper, plastics, and steel and aluminum cans.” Environmental commentator Bjorn Lomborg has pointed out that many more Americans die from using spices on food than from the polluting effects of landfills.
Perhaps the real benefit is saving nature from the effects of extracting “virgin” raw materials, or saving resources for future generations?
That may be a legitimate concern, but a much more effective strategy is to properly regulate these impacts at the source of the problem, at the forest or the mine.   Doing so has the advantage that it controls all the impacts from extraction. That beats merely reducing them to whatever extent post-recycled materials can replace virgin ones. If anything should make recycling financially viable, it should be the costs of industries who extract such materials and who must comply with environmental regulations. That automatically makes post-recycled materials more valuable.
Except that by and large such regulations are already in place. To take forestry as an example, all harvested trees are mandatorily replanted. Provinces each set an Annual Allowable Cut designed to keep harvesting to a sustainable level, yet actual cuts have been consistently below these levels for the past decade. Meanwhile Canada leads the world at third-party certification of forestry, about half of all forests now certified by such organizations as the Forest Stewardship Council and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative. Saving trees by subsidizing paper recycling beyond what is ordinarily viable does not stand up to rational scrutiny.
Similar arguments could be made for other raw materials, space does not permit the digression. 
Good environmental custodianship means accepting that humans are part of the environment, that we will inevitably have an impact on it, and that our true moral imperative is to lessen that impact using the most efficient methods available. Recycling advocates need to provide more than grand moral exhortations to justify their cause.