How often have we heard that the U.S. was running out of land fill space, packaging adds to waste issues, and recycling helps protect the environment? Perhaps we need to dive into these commonly-held perceptions to see if they are supported by real statistics, with some help from an interesting group of experts who have created the Eight Great Myths About Waste Disposal via a hat tip to the Coyote Blog. I’ll mention just three.
Let’s start with land fill space.
Since the 1980s, people repeatedly have claimed that the United States faces a landfill crisis. Former Vice President Al Gore, for example, asserted we are "running out of ways to dispose of our waste in a manner that keeps it out of either sight or mind."
In fact, the United States today has more landfill capacity than ever before. In 2001, the nation’s landfills could accommodate 18 years’ worth of rubbish, an amount 25 percent greater than a decade before. The uneven distribution of available landfill space is no more important than is the uneven distribution of auto manufacturing: Trash is an interstate business, with 47 states exporting the stuff and 45 importing it. Indeed, the total land area needed to hold all of America’s garbage for the next century would be only about 10 miles square.
I’ll generously presume that "10 miles square" means 100 square miles. Over 350 square miles just burned up less than a hundred miles south of me, and few people are going to miss it. I bet we could find ten or a hundred. And I won’t even make any jokes about New Jersey.
Let’s move on to the woes of packaging.
Contrary to current wisdom, packaging can reduce total rubbish produced. The average household in the United States generates one third less trash each year than does the average household in Mexico, partly because packaging reduces breakage and food waste.
The gains from packaging have been growing over time, because companies have been reducing the weight of the packages they use. During the late 1970s and 1980s, although the number of packages entering landfills rose substantially, the total weight of those discards declined by 40 percent. Over the past 25 years the weights of individual packages have been reduced by amounts ranging from 30 percent (2- liter soft drink bottles) to 70 percent (plastic grocery sacks and trash bags). Even aluminum beverage cans weigh 40 percent less than they used to.
The article goes on to use chicken processing as a rather bloody example. Remember how some cities like San Francisco are creating financial incentives to use paper instead of plastic bags? Hmmm…
And finally, does recycling really help the environment?
Recycling is a manufacturing process with environmental impacts. Viewed across a wide spectrum of goods, recycling sometimes cuts pollution, but not always. The EPA has examined both virgin paper processing and recycled paper processing for toxic substances and found that toxins often are more prevalent in the recycling processes.
Often the pollution associated with recycling shows up in unexpected ways. Curbside recycling, for example, requires that more trucks be used to collect the same amount of waste materials. Thus, Los Angeles has 800 rubbish trucks rather than 400, because of its curb-side recycling. This means more iron ore and coal mining, steel and rubber manufacturing, petroleum extraction and refining-and of course extra air pollution in the Los Angeles basin.
That’s a lot of extra garbage trucks… and pollution.
Don’t get me wrong… I’m all for recycling and the environment. My wife and I are avid outdoorspeople and we dutifully lug tubs of newspaper and plastic and glass to the curb every Friday. In fact, we go even further and reduce our consumption significantly by eating out more and more often. That counts, doesn’t it?
Mark Graban says
I’m expecting you to buy carbon offsets for the gas you burn driving to the restaurant, though :-)
Reducing waste is a good thing. If there’s more waste created in the name of reducing waste, we should investigate the net-net impact. This applies to electric cars (which don’t pollute, but maybe use electric generated by dirtier means than gas engines) and recycling of aluminum, etc.
Just because it “Feels good” doesn’t mean it’s good environmental policy.
Biodegradable plastic packaging not only can rot before you want it too, but it releases carbon into the atmosphere when it does rot rather than being a recyclable and carbon storing material. You might as well just burn it. I like the fact that it doesnt rot.
I also like the idea of recycling if it conserves resources but ive never felt that bad about throwing away plastic. The nasty Oil will be in the ground for millions of years so if its converted to a harmless inert form used by humans and then put back in the ground ,its not a problem for me. I suppose the manafacturing of plastic creates pollution so consumption is a concern but not disposal.