On recycling

Mar 14 2010

While visiting one of my regular reads, I came across a summary of what’s wrong with our continued national fetish for recycling.

Having extensive experience in the waste industry, I’ve never been a fan of consumer (curbside) recycling. It’s a completely different business than the trash business.

The trash business is simple – fee for service. You pay someone to come and pick up your trash. They take it away and either burn it or bury it. Fee for service.

Recycling, as it’s done today? Not so simple – it’s a commodity play, basically a bet that they can pick up your allegedly recyclable cast-offs, and a market will exist in which the person who picked them up can sell them (after cleanup/aggregation/processing) for more than it cost to perform the collection, separation, and processing.

A very different business from trash collection. And as I used to say back when I was in the waste business, if someone wanted to be in that commodity business, more power to them, but I couldn’t understand the idiocy by which municipalities asserted common ground between that business and recycling. I was further dismayed to find that trash companies took the bait and accepted this absurd bastardization of their business. There’s at least one former company in the industry (Browning Ferris Industries, now a fully-digested part of Allied Waste, which is itself now a fully digested part of Republic Waste), a true blue-chipper, and a great company in its time, which was utterly undone by the idiocy of pretending that recycling was the business it was in.

Why the idiocy? Because of the actions of a misdirected board, the chairman of which, former EPA administrator William Ruckelshaus, decided BFI should pretend to save the world, while destroying the business at which it actually excelled. He did some good things while in that slot – breaking the back of organized crime in the New York market is one of those. I can think of no others, and his actions ultimately killed the company’s ability to operate as a viable standalone entity. His recycling mantra was the murder weapon.

I was reminded of all of this from the Ace of Spades post previously mentioned. From it, I traversed a link to the interesting Sippican Cottage website. (be sure to read his “About Me” snippet). And from that link, a reminder of the several-years-old Penn & Teller “Bullshit” segment on the idiocy of recycling, notwithstanding the fervor of the idiots who believe in its value, below.



Lots of things make sense to recycle. Oddly enough though, virtually every one of those things happens to be an individual aluminum can. Almost everything else is a waste of time and effort, on both economic and environmental grounds. Curbside recycling, outside of aluminum cans, is counterproductive make-work, worth nothing other than the psychic self-stimulation it provides to misinformed consumers and maladjusted recycling coordinators. We’re not now, nor have we ever been, running out of landfill space, and landfills are now and remain the most effective and safe way to deal with the nation’s garbage.

Other things will come along which can rationally be used to reduce volume going into landfills, but when they do, it’ll be because there’s an economically justifiable method for recapturing value from the items that would otherwise be buried in the ground. Mechanically separating waste streams, while hoping that the market for the resulting commodities doesn’t crash while you’re baling them up and praying for an opportunity to sell them, has a flaw in it:

As with any human activity, if you can’t find an economic justification to do it, with only a very few exceptions, you shouldn’t be doing it.


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