Recycling Not a Universal Good

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"Recycling is a manufacturing process, and therefore it too has an environmental impact. . . . Recycling changes the nature of pollution, sometimes increasing it and sometimes decreasing it."— Daniel K. Benjamin, economics professor and former adviser to President Ronald Reagan.

Daniel K. Benjamin, "Eight Great Myths of Recycling," Property and Environment Research Center, September 2003, p. 17.

The largest categories of plastic wastes include containers (for foods, drinks, and cosmetic and household items), product packaging, durable goods such as appliances and furniture, and nondurable goods such as baby diapers, trash bags, cups and utensils, and medical devices. Although 37 percent of PET bottles and 28 percent of HDPE bottles were recycled in 2007, this represents only a tiny fraction of all plastics in the waste stream. In fact, according to the EPA, only 6.8 percent of all plastic wastes generated in 2007 were recycled; the rest was buried in landfills.

Moreover, those plastics that are recycled are often made into products that cannot themselves be recycled, so recycling of plastics really only delays the time when the material ends up in a landfill. Recycled PET and HDPE plastics, for example, are typically used to make items that generally cannot be recycled at the end of their product life. As reporter Emily Gurnon explains:

All in all, plastic recycling appears to fall far short of its promise. Even if recycled under the best of conditions, a plastic bottle or margarine tub will probably have only one additional life. Since it can't be made into another food container, your Snapple bottle will become a "durable good," such as carpet or fiberfill for a jacket. Your milk bottle will become a plastic toy or the outer casing on a cell phone. Those things, in turn, will eventually be thrown away.21

Critics of recycling have also claimed government recycling programs are not cost-effective. In fact, the mega-landfills have actually created an abundance of space for burying trash, making landfill disposal less expensive than running recycling programs for some cities. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, for example, canceled his city's glass and plastic recycling program in 2002 to save money, until the complaints of angry citizens caused him to partially reinstate it in 2003.

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