The Blog

Recycle This!

Separating tin cans and pizza boxes and exposing the facts about the High Church of Recycling.

11:00 PM, Jan 25, 2006 • By JAMES THAYER
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CITY BUDGETS aren't the only victims of recycling. Citizens also have a significant cost--their time. Seattle Public Utilities researchers (in collaboration with University of California, Davis) conducted a survey in 2005 that indicated 98 percent of Seattle households participate in the curbside recycling program, and that 16 minutes are spent recycling per household. The city contains 260,000 households, which means each week Seattleites spend almost 8,500 work days recycling. Working days lost in traffic jams are commonly cited by proponents of HOV lanes, bike paths, and light rail. Nary a word is heard about lost time when the topic is recycling.

And what are those 16 minutes spent doing? Sorting, extracting, rinsing, bundling, and stomping. In Seattle, household batteries can be put into the garbage, but not rechargeable batteries. Plastic soda bottles can be recycled, but not plastic flower pots. Plastic shopping bags go into the recycle bin (bundle them first), but not plastic produce bags or plastic freezer wrap bags. Plastic cottage cheese tubs, yes, but not plastic six-pack rings. Frozen food boxes go into the recycle bin, but not paper plates. Cardboard, sure, but not if a pizza came in it, and make sure to flatten the box. And remove any tape. Cereal boxes, yes, but pull out the liner. Typing paper, of course, but sort out the paper punch holes, as those little dots can't be recycled. Hardback books, okay, but wrestle off the covers. Metal hangers, yes: aluminum foil, no. Tin cans, you bet, but rinse them, and push the lid down into the can. No loose lids can go in the recycle bin. And no confetti.

So at least it's a fun 16 minutes. There are out-of-pocket expenses, too: Rod Kauffman, president of the Building Owners and Managers Association of Seattle and King County, says this sorting will add 10 percent to a building's janitorial bills.

IF WE WEREN'T RECYCLING, wouldn't the landfills soon overflow? Al Gore certainly thinks so, as he claimed we are "running out of ways to dispose of our waste in a manner that keeps it out of either sight or mind." Nonsense. 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.

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."

But what about saving precious resources by recycling? 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 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."