A recent Capital Public Radio headline says, “ California has a recycling problem.” Or, in the words of a 1990s evergreen headline in the New York Times Magazine, “Recycling is garbage.”
From there, the articles diverge. One tells the story of how California policymakers are trying to reform the recycling process. The other is a lengthy and deeply researched essay that punctures deep wounds into the recycling narrative and showed how counterproductive it is.
While a lot can change in 25 years, the truths John Tierney exposed in 1996 are timeless. Now a contributing editor at City Journal, Tierney followed up in 2015 with a New York Times op-ed in which he wrote that “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’s first article generated more hate mail than any Times article before it. But that doesn’t mean he was wrong. Four years after his follow-up, the Sierra Club’s magazine called the U.S. recycling system “garbage.” It also revealed its “dirty secret.”
“Half the plastic and much of the paper you put into it did not go to your local recycling center. Instead, it was stuffed onto giant container ships and sold to China,” where “much of it” is “simply dumped, washing down rivers to feed the crisis of ocean plastic pollution.”
Of course, the Sierra Club blames the failure of “America’s once-robust capability to sort, clean, and recycle its own waste” on taking the easy route and bundling its trash to China rather than investing “in expensive technology and labor.”
To work as intended, recycling requires narrow, virtually pristine streams of feedstock. But curbside recycling is often tainted by contaminants, “such as food and dirt,” Capital Public Radio reports, that can compromise the process. Non-recyclable materials mixed in with recyclables also “cause a headache at sorting facilities.” They often become snagged and wrapped up in sorting machines, damaging equipment, which takes time to repair, and adds to the cost of the process.
“People throw ridiculous things into their blue bins (diapers, shattered pottery, etc.) and the slightest bit of contamination (grease, food, feces, and mixed materials like paper envelopes with plastic windows) requires extra labor to separate,” says a writer from a site called, oddly enough, Treehugger, which promotes “sustainability for all.”
Many Californians surely feel virtuous every time they drop another plastic bottle or aluminum can into their recycling bins. But, because people toss “ridiculous things” in recycling containers, 20% to 40% of what they believe will be converted by the magic of the system “has a chance of being landfilled,” says Jeff Donlevy, general manager with Ming’s Recycling in Sacramento.
There’s an argument to be made that we’d be better off if all waste, including items that are often recycled, was sent straight to the landfill. Six years ago, Tierney wrote that “it’s still typically more expensive for municipalities to recycle household waste than to send it to a landfill.”
This was roughly three years before recycling costs increased in response to China’s refusal to continue importing dirty waste in search of raw materials for its manufacturing. Today, it’s not unusual to read about local governments closing or downsizing their recycling programs.
No one would claim that landfills are pristine, but the modern versions have no connection to the filthy city dumps on the edge of town in another era. The federal Environmental Protection Agency says they are “well-engineered,” and “designed to protect the environment from contaminants.” Landfills are also regularly monitored, and are required to “meet stringent design, operation and closure requirements” to prevent ground contamination. After serving their communities, some landfills are even “covered with grass and converted to parkland,” says Tierney.
But how many Californians know this, or that the infamous garbage barge that floated “up and down the East Coast” in 1987 “in a futile search for a final resting place” — which it found in Brooklyn — wasn’t an indication that we’re running out of landfill space? Is a public so sure of the morality of recycling aware that 81 landfills, not plastic redemption centers, across the state generate renewable electricity?
Obsessions are never healthy, and California is obsessed with recycling. But it can be overcome. What’s needed is exposure to facts that will make many uncomfortable.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.