Recycled Trash

Few arguments are more dangerous than the ones that “feel” right but can’t be justified (Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man, 1981).

Paradoxically, recycled trash is exactly what you get 99 times out of 100 when the sacred subject of recycling comes up.

Recycling is the process whereby rubbish is converted into reusable materials.

Recycling — once known as scavenging — is as old as mankind herself, and it has always been a way dealing with waste products. But it was once a decision left up to individuals, and not coercive governmental institutions.

Rubbish is an inescapable by-product of human life.

At present, there are only three possible ways of dealing with rubbish: dumping, incinerating, or recycling.

One of the primary forces behind the push for so much mandatory recycling is utter ignorance about the extent to which spontaneous recycling occurs in the private sector.

In the words of one of our foremost rubbish expert, Doctor William Rathje, of the University of Arizona:

“As long as mankind has been throwing away trash, others have sifted through it.”

What this translates to is this:

When recycling makes sense, as it does with scrap steel and aluminum cans, it makes sense not because of resource scarcity, which is not a problem, nor because extracting the resources will irreparably harm the environment (it won’t), but because it is economically tenable to do so.

Businesses in free-market countries exist to recycle these products. And they’ve existed for many, many decades.

Furthermore, no one is being forced to save recyclables, or to take them away.

A few other things about recycling you’ll most likely never hear from the environmental contingent:

Forests in developed countries are not mowed down to produce paper, and recycling paper does not “save forests”: pulpwood is grown and farmed specifically for paper, as this quondam forester makes unequivocally clear.

Thus in the long run mandatory recycling laws hurt people and the economy, for when demand declines, farmers stop growing pulpwood trees. And since recycled paper often requires more energy to make, it is often more expensive.

In addition, de-inking newspapers, which is necessary in order to recycle them, may create a toxic sludge not at all good for the environment, which sludge, toxic or not, must somewhere be landfilled.

Because recycling ignores the law of supply and demand, recycled material is very often landfilled – as, to cite one of many examples, shortly after enacting its mandatory recycling laws, the German government admitted (Recycling’ Demand Side: “Lessons from Germany’s Green Dot”).

“[We] are running out of ways to dispose of our waste in a manner that keeps it out of either sight or mind,” said Nobel Prize winner Albert Gore, a statement contradicted by every shred of hard data on this subject.

For example:

“If we permitted rubbish to reach the height it did at New York’s Fresh Kills site (255 feet), a landfill that would hold all of America’s garbage for the next century would still be only about 10 miles on a side” (Lomborg, 2001).


During the 1980s, the waste disposal industry moved to using larger landfills, partly because of new EPA regulations and partly because of consolidations and mergers. At the same time, the number of operating landfills fell sharply. The EPA, the press, and a variety of other commentators focused on the number of landfills, rather than on their capacity, which was growing rapidly, and concluded that we were running out of space. J. Winston Porter, the EPA Assistant Administrator responsible for that agency’s role in creating the appearance of a garbage crisis, has since admitted that the key EPA study was flawed because it counted landfills rather than landfill capacity, and it also underestimated the prospects for creating additional capacity. Allen Geswein, an EPA official and one of the authors of the EPA study, remarked, ‘I’ve always wondered where that crap about a landfill-capacity crisis came from’ (Bailey 1995, A8).

Even the notoriously leftist EPA acknowledges that risk to life from modern landfills is “virtually nonexistent.”

The truth is, there is no shortage of landfill space, not remotely. All the trash produced by the United States for the next one thousand years could fit into a landfill forty-four miles square by 120 feet deep – one tenth of 1 percent of all this country’s entire land area. (“A Consumer’s Guide to Environmental Myths and Realities,” Clark Wiseman, Gonzaga University.)

“Recycling laws could eliminate the one-pound coffee ‘brick packs’ you now find in retail stores. These packages hold the same amount of coffee as metal cans, but weigh less than one-third of traditional metal cans, and they take up little space. Recycled-content laws would force the use of cans instead” (Facts not Fear).

Transporting recyclables requires separate collection trucks. In addition to which, producing finished recycled goods consumes a great deal of energy and also causes pollution, every bit as much as producing, for example, paper from pulpwood.

“In Los Angles, curbside recycling means that the city had to have eight hundred rather than four hundred trucks to pick up trash. And that city already has an air pollution problem” (Ibid).

Rubbish is indeed an inescapable by-product of human life. Yet according to Richard Denison of the Environmental Defense Fund: “Garbage is intolerable in a free society.”

Humans, in other words, must live as ghosts, because the religion of environmentalism finds the by-products of human existence “intolerable.”

Concerning the question of which method creates the most pollution:

“It is almost beyond dispute that manufacturing products from recyclables instead of from virgin raw materials” (making, for instance, paper out of old newspapers instead of virgin timber) “causes less pollution and imposes fewer burdens on the earth’s natural habitat and biodiversity,” says the Natural Resources Defense Council.

And yet:

This assumption is not merely beyond dispute; it is wrong in many instances. Recycling is a manufacturing process, and therefore it too has environmental impact. The U.S. Office of Technology Assessment (1989, 191) says that it is ‘usually not clear whether secondary manufacturing [such as recycling] produces less pollution per ton of material processed than primary manufacturing processes.’ Indeed, the Office of Technology Assessment goes on to explain why: Recycling changes the nature of pollution, sometimes increasing it and sometimes decreasing it. For example, the EPA examined both virgin paper processing 18 PERC POLICY SERIES and recycled paper processing for toxic substances. Five toxic substances were found only in virgin processes, eight only in recycling processes, and twelve in both processes. Among these twelve, all but one was present in higher levels in the recycling processes (Office of Technology Assessment 1989, 191). Similar mixed results have been found for steel and aluminum production. Indeed, over the past twenty years, a large body of literature devoted to life-cycle analyses of products from their birth to death has repeatedly found that recycling can increase pollution as well as decrease it (Daniel K. Benjamin, “Eight Great Myths of Recycling”).

Reader, at the very least know this:

Nothing is ever truly recycled until it has been sorted, remanufactured, and repurchased.

Thus, one must not just blindly advocate a categorical policy of recycling, recycling, recycling — by compulsion, if necessary — without any regard for what the market will bear.

This only creates tons more waste, which is one of the many reasons that mandatorily recycled garbage is so often landfilled.

So much for the inane claim that “economics have nothing to do with the environment.”

This, like recycling and a host of other issues, is just so much more environmental trash.

Read Part 2 of this article Glass Recycling here.


  • Stacey Derbinshire

    January 21, 2010

    A friend of mine just emailed me one of your articles from a while back. I read that one a few more. Really enjoy your blog. Thanks

  • Dave Cochrane

    February 15, 2010

    There’s a good episode of Penn & Teller’s Bullshit on this very subject. A little searching on YouTube will find it.

  • redomondo

    October 21, 2010

    Whatever man – Recycling is great! Just watch this!

    And you’ll see how wrong you are!

    Somehow I have to protect my children from this propaganda.

  • DG

    November 24, 2010

    Yes, god forbid they may start separating their garbage. Everything to the landfill that’s the way to go kids!

  • Redomondo

    November 25, 2010

    Yes, god forbid they may start separating their garbage. Everything to the landfill that’s the way to go kids!

    Recycling has never paid for itself – for instance in Toronto we pay $335/tonne all in for Recycling.

    Landfill is $65/tonne – why do you associate a moral value with garbage production?

    Waste to energy is the way to go – Toronto could be generating $25 000 000 per year in electricity if our reactionary greens didn’t have it in for modern technology.

    All of Europe generally burns 40%+ of their garbage – the metal and other items that are worth anything are sorted out mechanically. No need to pay guys $16/hour to do it here.

    100 years ago, Labour was cheap enough, and metals were valuable enough that it paid to sort through garbage.

    You should give this a read – Eight Great Myths of Recycling

    Now the only people who can do so at a profit are the homeless in North American Cities, and professional garbage pickers in 3rd world countries.

    Wandering from pile to pile, calling out, “Piyesa! Piyesa!” (Parts! Partsl), are brokers of electronic and computer components, a new and lucrative categoryof waste. I ask Bobbywhat’s worth the most, and he replies without hesitating, “Epson.” An empty refillable printer cartridge in working condition can go for as much as 350 pesos. Bobby knows the prices for all these, too: Monitor, 50 pesos. Motherboard, 30. Circuit boards for 25 a kilo, to be melted down for trace amounts of gold. Pentium chips, if the pins can be straightened, 50.

    From Harpers Magazine – 2006

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