Is recycling a waste of time?

In early October, The New York Times’ Sunday Review section ran a piece called “The Reign of Recycling,” in which John Tierney asks all of us well-intentioned John Q. Publics, “Are you in fact wasting your time?”

Citing his own Times articles from 1996 in his already I-told-you-so introductory passages, Tierney proposes: Yes, you are in fact wasting your time. He writes,

While it’s true that the recycling message has reached more people than ever, when it comes to the bottom line, both economically and environmentally, not much has changed at all.

Tierney apprises us that recycling doesn’t make economic sense and that while “politicians set higher and higher goals, the national rate of recycling has stagnated in recent years.” Though I won’t recap his arguments in detail – and I encourage you to read for yourself – he goes on to relay that economically and pragmatically landfills are the better way to go, despite objections like this July 2015 article, which Tierney himself references.

Though I’m sorry to express this opinion, Americans are economic creatures first. We may sing with pride about our democracy, but we fail to vote, we fail to educate all children, and we fail to demand justice in our legal system. But we never fail to deposit our paychecks and spend, spend, spend— in some cases, more than we deposit. And Tierney alludes to that unfortunate feature of our culture:

THE environmental benefits of recycling come chiefly from reducing the need to manufacture new products — less mining, drilling and logging. But that’s not so appealing to the workers in those industries and to the communities that have accepted the environmental trade-offs that come with those jobs.

Finally, about two-thirds of the way down, Tierney asks the question I’d been waiting for as I read: “So what is a socially conscious, sensible person to do?” (If you’ve read my post “Shut Up, Doomsayers!” then you know that, for me, it’s always about solutions.)

His solution: hit ’em in the wallet— “a carbon tax on garbage.”

But why won’t this happen? Two reasons. First, it’s not politically expedient to raise taxes, especially on businesses, especially not on big businesses with the money to fight back. Second,

because recycling intuitively appeals to many voters: It makes people feel virtuous, especially affluent people who feel guilty about their enormous environmental footprint. It is less an ethical activity than a religious ritual, like the ones performed by Catholics to obtain indulgences for their sins.

I agree with him on both points. About the first: it’s easier to push recycling programs on the general public than it is to face down businesses and pro-business conservatives to pass that tax. About the second: yes, I do like participating in the solution. I feel good knowing that I’m doing right, that I’m making responsible choices. Tierney acknowledges that, though the benefits of one person recycling may be miniscule, they are benefits nonetheless, especially when multiplied by millions of people. And that tax that he and the economist from Bucknell like so much— it hasn’t happened . . . and probably won’t.

So thanks, Mr. Tierney, for reminding us that you’ve been arguing against recycling for almost twenty years. How’s that been going for you? 

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