TCS Daily

No Kidding On Recycling

By Herbert Inhaber - April 22, 2002 12:00 AM

What will we tell the kids? The kids that have been so assiduously putting newspapers, glass and metal in separate containers so that, according to their teacher the world will be a better place this Earth Day? Dare we tell them that recycling, while noble in intent, often doesn't work?

Consider three examples:

Smelly Scraps

One comes near where I live, in the city of North Las Vegas. Decades ago, a farmer decided to recycle and make a profit. No, he didn't deal in newspapers, but in the scraps from the plates of millions of visitors who come to Las Vegas to eat at its overflowing buffet lines. Don't throw out all that left-over food, he said. Sell it to me. I'll transport it to a nearby pig farm, and the animals will get a better diet - including discarded shrimp cocktails - than they would get on any other piggery. Their meat would eventually end up on Las Vegas dining tables, a fine example of recycling.

All went well, until Las Vegas extended outward. Now he is being surrounded by new housing developments. Its residents don't appreciate the smell of nearby pigs. They are putting pressure on the City Council to ban farming in the area. The farmer says he can't relocate, because the cost of land is much higher than it was decades ago. Recycling will come to an end. I suppose that the tons of scraps will now end up in the garbage heap.

Costly Collections

A second example: Mayor Bloomberg of New York, facing yet another budget crisis, says that he has to cut out the $57 million in recycling subsidies the city has been spending each year. But the decision begs the question: If recycling is as cost-effective as its proponents claim, the city would have been making money on the program, rather than spending it. After all, old newspapers, if accumulated in big enough piles, supposedly have some economic value. And the cost of collecting them from special bins can't be that high, can it?

In reality, the value of used newspapers and plastic varies tremendously from place to place and time to time. When a city that has mandated recycling finds that it is losing money, something that often happens, the garbage people merely throw the carefully arranged bins of newspapers and glass into the dump. All this takes place out of the sight of the children who have been told by their schools that recycling, if not God's will, is pretty close to it.

Added to the problems of recycling is the impurity of the input. In the old days, the Sunday newspaper was 100% paper. Now there are metal staples, special inserts made of plastic, and other materials of who knows what. Glass bottles used to be only glass. Now they have metal rings around the collars and plastic advertisements hanging from them. All of these tend to gum up the machines that do the recycling. When the impurity levels get high enough, the order goes out - no more from City X. The collection goes on, but all the bin contents, like the ingredients of a meal that all end up in the stomach, are thrown together in the dump.

Foamy Fridges

The third example is to so-called "fridge mountains" in Britain. Due to a European Community regulation, all of the Styrofoam insulation in discarded refrigerators across Europe is supposed to be recycled. Special machines are supposed to do this work. Apparently there are no such machines in Britain, due to some bureaucratic oversight. This has led to mountains of old fridges outside many British towns, creating an unholy and unsightly mess.

The object of all of this is somehow to protect the ozone layer, a commendable goal. But no such law - thankfully has been enacted in the United States, the source of more old fridges than any other country. The Third World, which is gradually discarding their old tiny fridges and going to larger models, is also not participating in this exercise. So the Europeans will have accomplished very little in terms of the ozone layer, even assuming - a stretch -- that recycling Styrofoam will help it.

Reasoned Recycling

Some recycling takes place, even without government laws and regulations, when economic conditions are right. For example, it has been estimated that almost all the gold ever mined is still in use. Obviously, most has been recycled in one way or another. And the millions of used cars sold every year are a form of recycling. Even Bill Gates probably does not send his old vehicles directly to the town dump.

So recycling, like many other environmental concepts, has been way oversold. On this Earth Day, the flops of the movement will no doubt be carefully swept under the rug. Still, let's tell the children the truth for, as the ancients had it, the truth shall make you free.

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