I received three emails in the last month asking if Iâ€™d like to be the â€œgreen ambassadorâ€ for my department at work, to support our new recycling program. I cringed and ignored each message until someone else finally volunteered. Itâ€™s times like this that I curse Penn & Teller.
I havenâ€™t personally conducted a cost and benefit analysis on recycling, and intuitively it seems like a positive thing to do. But most pseudoscience takes advantage of exactly this type of situation â€“ a situation in which the answer seems intuitive and the masses are unlikely to actually research it.
I love Penn & Teller â€“ their magic, their Bullshit! Show, Penn Radioâ€¦you name it. Pennâ€™s a nut and I may not agree with him 100% of the time, but I always find his point of view interesting, thought provoking, and worth hearing. And I agree with him a lot. One of the things I like is that P&T are unafraid to attack institutions, even when it will upset people â€“ like recycling! Penn embodies the value of â€œno sacred cowsâ€. But, on Bullshit!, I expect to see Penn debunking religion, ghosts, and psychics, so when I saw recycling as one of the topics, I thought â€“ heâ€™s going to have to convince me. I was fighting the big three compelling misconceptions about recycling:
1. It has environmental benefits
2. It has economic benefits
3. It makes you feel like a good person
But not everyone thinks so.
Most of what people believe about recycling is based on misinformation.
-Daniel Benjamin, Clemson University, author of The Eight Myths of Recycling.
Enthusiasts say that recycling conserves energy, resources, and money. But does it really? Here are a few things I learned on the show:
Trees are of major concern to the well-meaning people at my work, who claim we should be recycling our paper. But trees are a renewable resource. Tree farms grow as many trees as are needed to meet the demand for paper. And ironically, since recycling lowers the demand for trees, it ultimately reduces the number of trees we grow.
It also takes additional energy to transport, sort, store, and clean the recycled goods. According to Daniel Benjamin,â€Los Angeles has estimated that due to curbside recycling, its fleet of trucks is twice as large as it otherwise would be – 800 vs. 400 trucks. This means more iron ore and coal mining, more steel and rubber manufacturing, more petroleum extracted and refined for fuel – and of course all that extra air pollution in the Los Angeles basin as the 400 added trucks cruise the streets.â€
But there must at least be cost benefits. Right?
In almost all communities it is more expensive to recycle than it is to landfill.â€
â€œRubbishâ€, the term for unrecycled garbage, just has to be transported and discarded. Recyclables, as mentioned above, must be transported, sorted, stored, and cleaned. It costs $50 – $60 to process a ton of rubbish, as opposed to $150 per ton of recyclables. Three times as much. Who pays for this? Us, in the $8 billion annual subsidies that our taxes support. And for what? The cool products you can make with recycled materials? Penn says, â€œHereâ€™s the unromantic truth. You can make better quality, less expensive versions of that shit if you just start from scratch.â€ **
If the environmental and economic benefits of recycling aren’t real, what exactly are we feeling so good about?
Recycling may be the most wasteful activity in modern America. A waste of time and money. A waste of human and natural resources.
â€“ John Tierney, The New York Times. See entire article.
Now, that doesn’t feel good.
So, when all of this environmental conservation hype started at my work, I pulled out my P&T DVD for a review session. Itâ€™s a pretty damning case if you ask me. But Iâ€™m no expert environmentalist. What do you think?
**There is one recyclable that the show gives credit: aluminum. It costs less money to recycle an aluminum can than the make a new one. So if youâ€™re recycling aluminum cans, you can feel good about it. No government subsidy necessary.