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Recycling criticism

The following are criticisms of many popular points used for recycling.


Saves energy

There is controversy on just how much energy is saved through recycling. The EIA states on its website that "a paper mill uses 40 percent less energy to make paper from recycled paper than it does to make paper from fresh lumber."[1] Critics often argue that in the overall processes, it can take more energy to produce recycled products than it does to dispose of them in traditional landfill methods. This argument is followed from the curbside collection of recyclables, which critics note is often done by a second waste truck in addition to the truck that picks up the regular trash.

It is difficult to determine the exact amount of energy consumed in waste disposal processes. How much energy is used in recycling depends largely on the type of material being recycled and the process used to do so. Aluminum is generally agreed to use far less energy when recycled rather than being produced from scratch. The EPA states that "recycling aluminum cans, for example, saves 95 percent of the energy required to make the same amount of aluminum from its virgin source, bauxite."[2]

Economist Steven Landsburg has suggested that the sole benefit of reducing landfill space is trumped by the energy needed and resulting pollution from the recycling process.[3] Others, however, have calculated through life cycle assessment that producing recycled paper uses less energy and water than harvesting, pulping, processing, and transporting virgin trees.[4] By using less recycled paper, additional energy is needed to create and maintain farmed forests until these forests are as self-sustainable as virgin forests.

Public policy analyst James V. DeLong points out that recycling is a manufacturing process and many of the methods use more energy than they save. In addition to energy usage, he notes that recycling requires capital and labor while producing some waste. These processes need to be more efficient than production from original raw material and/or traditional garbage disposal in order for recycling to be the superior method.[5]

Saves money

The amount of money actually saved through recycling is proportional to the efficiency of the recycling program used to do it. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance argues that the cost of recycling depends on various factors around a community that recycles, such as landfill fees and the amount of disposal that the community recycles. It states that communities start to save money when they treat recycling as a replacement for their traditional waste system rather than an add-on to it and by "redesigning their collection schedules and/or trucks."[6]

In many cases the cost of recyclable materials also exceeds the cost of raw materials. Virgin plastic resin costs 40% less than recycled resin.[7] Additionally, an EPA study that tracked the price of clear cullet from July 15 to August 2, 1991, found that the average cost per ton ranged from $40 to $60,[8] while a USGS report shows that the cost per ton of raw silica sand from years 1993 to 1997 fell between $17.33 and $18.10.[9]

In a 1996 article for The New York Times, John Tierney argued that it costs more money to recycle the trash of New York City than it does to dispose of it in a landfill. Tierney argued that the recycling process employs people to do the additional waste disposal, sorting, inspecting, and many fees are often charged because the processing costs used to make the end product are often more than the price gained from its sale. Tierney also referenced a study conducted by the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) that found in the six communities involved in the study, "all but one of the curbside recycling programs, and all the composting operations and waste-to-energy incinerators, increased the cost of waste disposal."[10]

Working conditions

Critics often argue that while recycling may create jobs, they are often jobs with low wages and terrible working conditions.[11] These jobs are sometimes considered to be make-work jobs that don't produce as much as the cost of wages to pay for those jobs. Recycling jobs have seen mention in publications listing the worst jobs to work in.[12] In areas without many environmental regulations and/or worker protections, jobs involved in recycling such as ship breaking can result in deplorable conditions for both workers and the surrounding communities.

Saves trees

Economist Steven Landsburg has claimed that paper recycling actually reduces tree populations. He argues that because paper companies have incentives to replenish the forests they own, large demands for paper lead to large forests. Conversely, reduced demand for paper leads to fewer "farmed" forests.[3] Similar arguments were expressed in a 1995 article for The Free Market.[13]

When foresting companies cut down trees, more are planted in their place. Most paper comes from pulp forests grown specifically for paper production.[10][13][14][5] Many environmentalists point out, however, that "farmed" forests are inferior to virgin forests in several ways. Farmed forests are less able to fix the soil as quickly as virgin forests, causing widespread soil erosion and often requiring large amounts of fertilizer to maintain while containing little tree and wild-life biodiversity compared to virgin forests.[15]

Possible income loss and social costs

In some prosperous and many less prosperous countries in the world, the traditional job of recycling is performed by the entrepreneurial poor such as the Karung guni, the Rag and bone man, Waste picker, and junk man as parodied in Steptoe and Son and Sanford and Son. With the creation of large recycling organizations that may be profitable, either by law or economies of scale[1][2], the poor are more likely to be driven out of the recycling and the remanufacturing market. To compensate for this loss of income to the poor, a society may need to create additional forms of societal programs to help support the poor. Like the Parable of the broken window, there is a net loss to the poor and possibly the whole of a society to make recycling profitable.[citation needed]

Because the social support of a country is likely less than the loss of income to the poor doing recycling, there is a greater chance that the poor will come in conflict with the large recycling organizations[3]. This means fewer people can decide if certain waste is more economically reusable in its current form rather than being reprocessed. Contrasted to the recycling poor, the efficiency of their recycling may actually be higher for some materials because individuals have greater control over what is considered “waste.”

One labor-intensive underused waste is electronic and computer waste. Because this waste may still be functional and wanted mostly by the poor, the poor may sell or use it at a greater efficiency than large recyclers. This would result in higher standards of living for the poor, not requiring social programs, and less usable waste transferred to landfills.[citation needed]

Many recycling advocates believe that this Laissez-faire individual-based recycling does not cover all of society’s recycling needs. Thus, it does not negate the need for an organized recycling program. Local government often consider the activities of the recycling poor as contributing to property blight. Ecologists see the activities of the recycling poor as a choice between many potentially hazardous individual little dumps (see Goiânia accident and others) versus fewer large dumps that can be monitored.[citation needed]


  1. ^ Energy Information Administration Recycling Paper & Glass Accessed October 18, 2006
  2. ^ Environmental Protection Agency Frequently Asked Questions about Recycling and Waste Management Accessed October 18, 2006
  3. ^ a b Landsburg, Steven A. The Armchair Economist. p. 86.
  4. ^ Selke 116
  5. ^ a b Regulatory Policy Center WASTING AWAY: Mismanaging Municipal Solid Waste Accessed November 4, 2006
  6. ^ Waste to Wealth The Five Most Dangerous Myths About Recycling Accessed October 18, 2006
  7. ^ United States Department of EnergyConserving Energy - Recycling Plastics Accessed November 10, 2006
  8. ^ Environmental Protection AgencyMarkets for Recovered Glass Accessed November 10, 2006
  9. ^ United States Geological SurveyMineral Commodity Summaries Accessed November 10, 2006
  10. ^ a b New York Times Recycling... Is Garbage (article reproduced) Recycling... Is Garbage (article reproduced) Accessed October 18, 2006
  11. ^ Heartland Institute Recycling: It's a bad idea in New York Accessed October 18, 2006
  12. ^ Alternet The Ten Worst Jobs in America Accessed October 18, 2006
  13. ^ a b The Free Market Don't Recycle: Throw It Away! Accessed November 4, 2006
  14. ^ Jewish World Review The waste of recycling Accessed November 4, 2006
  15. ^ Baird, Colin (2004) Environmental Chemistry (3rd ed.) W. H. Freeman ISBN 0-7167-4877-0
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Recycling_criticism". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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