The recycling industry has created a reputation for themselves as crusaders of the environment. But at what price?
What many do not know is that the “green” giant has been propped up by taxpayer dollars for decades despite its ineffectiveness. Meanwhile, in public schools and other institutions, going green is the end-all, be-all when it comes to saving the planet. In reality, when your neighborhood starts to look like a rainbow with various colored bins lining the streets on trash day, there’s a chance you are getting hosed.
When it comes to recycling, profitability is highest when valuable new material can be produced from the old. This means that objects collected and brought to recycling facilities are supposed to be turned into usable material for the purpose of making other products.
According to Bucknell University economist Thomas Kinnaman, even though some products (such as clean paper and aluminum) can be collected, recycled, and turn a profit, the vast majority of what is recycled is deemed useless. Since it has been propagated into the heads of Americans that recycling is the only moral way to dispose of trash, different types of plastic, glass, and dirty paper and cardboard are religiously sent to recycling facilities (and then to a landfill).
To uphold these programs, specialized trucks with employees to transport, collect, and separate materials, as well as trash-sorting centers, are all needed. Most of the costs of recycling are due to labor. Struggling to turn a profit, the recycling industry turns to the government for millions in subsidies to perpetuate their attempt to take advantage of the public’s willful blindness (and craving for a false sense of environmental heroism). As recycling rates increase, so do the number of jobs in the industry. While job creation is typically applauded, it stems from a business that is running on government subsidies and losing money annually. It does nothing but put a financial burden on society.
For the reader still stomping their feet and claiming that costs do not matter when it comes to saving the planet, the notion of recycling as much as possible still falls through. As reported by the New York Times, one of the original goals that influenced recycling was to reduce America’s carbon footprint by decreasing the amount of energy that would be used to make the products from scratch. This seldom occurs when valuable products (as previously listed) are recycled, but it ends up making a tiny impact. With the addition of trucks for trash collection and facilities to sort through the unrecyclable materials, the program emits more toxins than it reduces (such as streams of waste and contaminated water and air emissions from facilities).
The amount of trash people recycle has skyrocketed since the 1980s. However, the amount of material recovered from the recycled trash did not follow the same trend. Even the CEO of Waste Management, one of the largest residential recycling companies in the country, has said that unless taxpayer dollars cover their losses, they will not continue their collection program.
In a recent interview with Bloomberg, former head honcho David Steiner explains that over the past few years, Waste Management has been losing money on recycling since various commodities are not profitable. Yet, according to Steiner, in places like California, these types of materials can be subsidized for the company to make a profit. Without those subsidies, Waste Management would not be able to continue its recycling efforts without losing its bottom-line.
As any capitalist would know, when the price of producing a commodity dwarfs the price that it can be sold at, an “out of business” sign is sure to end up on the company door. Since the objective of recycling is to turn old into new material and resell it, the argument between the tree-hugger and the money-hungry businessman becomes overplayed. Considering effectiveness equals profitability, the large-scale recycling effort that has besieged the nation the past few decades has turned out to be a lose-lose situation for every side.
If recycling were restricted to the few simple materials with value, it would be a more efficient program (and drastically smaller). If practiced lightly and with reason, recycling can play a small, but nonetheless, crucial role in cleaning up the world’s excessive amount of waste. Unfortunately, the rate at which American’s recycled does nothing but hurt their wallet and (ironically) the environment. Fanatics of mass-recycling efforts are blind to the larger forces at play.
The takeaway from the recycling industry’s rise to power is evident: as long as a business can sell itself as a necessity to the path to a green utopia, the well of taxpayer dollars never dries. Perhaps a tie can be made between Crony Capitalism and that little blue bin.