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Quote of the day, recycling edition

Religious rituals don’t need any practical justification for the believers who perform them voluntarily. But many recyclers want more than just the freedom to practice their religion. They want to make these rituals mandatory for everyone else, too, with stiff fines for sinners who don’t sort properly.

John Tierney revisits his legendary 1996 article about the insanity of most forms of recycling and concludes, that 20 years on, he remains completely correct.

I don't think he is mistaken.

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Reader Comments (57)

I'm not the most numerate, but I think that would be 20 years on.

Oct 4, 2015 at 9:42 PM | Unregistered CommenterAynsley Kellow

Uh oh, 1996 is already 19 years ago. Time flies...

Oct 4, 2015 at 9:42 PM | Unregistered CommenterHans Erren

Updated. Doesn't time fly?

Oct 4, 2015 at 9:57 PM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

$15 a ton - we should be so lucky. The standard UK rate of landfill tax is currently £82.60/ tonne, and we are having to pay through the nose for recycling on top of that. Insanity!

Oct 4, 2015 at 9:58 PM | Unregistered CommenterPeter W

Recycling UK is great. Companies get subsidised to set up, assistance from planning authorities, and support from residents, because anyone who opposes is branded a nimby. A charge is then made for dumping rubbish, and that which can be sold on, gets sold on for a profit

That which can not be sold, accumulates, until it spontaneously combusts, costing Fire and Rescue Services vast expenditure, with possible genuine risk of environmental contamination. The costs fall to an insurance company to clean up.

The cause of the spontaneous combustion, is probably blamed on global warming, as no arsonists were seen, and the part incinerated refuse, incurs costs to be dumped at a recycling plant, where it accumulates, and catches fire, again.

All of this provides green jobs, paid for by taxpayers, with no discernable benefit to anyone, apart from those who recycle subsidies into cars and houses.

Oct 4, 2015 at 9:59 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

Seems to me a solution to cut back on the amount of rubbish would be to force supermarkets to slash the amount of material they use in their packaging. Quite simple really.


Oct 4, 2015 at 10:03 PM | Unregistered Commentermailman

Wood burning stove makes short work of all but tin cans ;)

Oct 4, 2015 at 10:17 PM | Registered CommenterBreath of Fresh Air

mailman, large UK supermarkets have recycling bins for surplus packaging and recycling. A cynical person might conclude that this is to prevent legislation being introduced which might cost supermarkets money. Local authorities are very grateful for the amount of rubbish they do not have to clear up, and are happy with the arrangement.

Oct 4, 2015 at 10:17 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

The green Bromley mountain:-

Oct 4, 2015 at 10:25 PM | Unregistered CommenterPharos

Read the article. It is actually more nuanced than 'does not make economic or carbon sense'.
Sure, some stuff is dumb. Food scraps composting in Portland Oregon. Probably all the thermosetting plastics, like styrofoam. Glass is quite problematic. Melting cullet uses 20% the heat of a raw batch. But glass comes in at least three colors (clear, brown, and green) that have to be sorted. The broken bits are difficult to impossible. And it inefficient to ship unless already sorted and crushed. And even then, it like shipping expensive sand-- not viable for long distances.
On the other hand, it is pretty clear that recycling cardboard, paper, aluminum cans, and probably thermoplastics like water/soda bottles are both economically efficient and environmentally sound practices.
As with most things in life, the answer is nuanced. Either extreme is likely wrong. Kind of like climate change.

Oct 4, 2015 at 10:43 PM | Unregistered CommenterRud Istvan


"force supermarkets to slash the amount of material they use in their packaging. Quite simple really."

I spot Mencken in the wild again. "For every complex problem, there is an answer which is clear, simple and wrong."

There is a well known trade off between waste/damage in the supply chain and packaging. Problem is that consumers don't see that supply chain waste so it doesn't have a consumer group campaigning to reduce it.

Do you seriously think supermarkets - some of the most aggressively managed tight margin businesses on the planet - would waste money on superfluous packaging if there wasn't a damned good business case for it? Neither do I.

Oct 4, 2015 at 11:05 PM | Unregistered CommenterThe Pedant-General

The Pedant-General, not arguing, merely elaborating

supermarkets and manufacturers use packaging to enable fast and efficient movement of goods, from source to point of sale, with minimum risk of damage in transit. They also use packaging to boost sales.

When toothpaste can be sold in box shaped tubes that are shelf stackable, a box that makes the contents appear bigger, won't be needed.

When oranges can be grown in cube shapes, they can be stacked on shelves.

A chocolate Easter egg, is one of the most elaborate and pointlessly expensive ways of buying chocolate, but is normally well received as a gift.

Supermarkets know they would make less profit, so it is more cost effective to provide free recycling (though not waste too much money promoting it) Many will deliver your shopping to your door, but won't take away the packaging from the last delivery, even though there must be space in their delivery van, from the fresh load they have just delivered.

Oct 5, 2015 at 12:19 AM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

Rud Istvan,

Economic efficiency means that ratepayers benefit for their recycling efforts, i.e. their rates are lower because they recycle. The article does not make that case, it says "In New York City, the net cost of recycling a ton of trash is now $300 more than it would cost to bury the trash instead." It is not economically efficient for ratepayers and taxpayers to provide profits to recycling companies. Nor is it economically efficient if the the cost of landfill is artificially inflated by a landfill tax to distort the equation.

Oct 5, 2015 at 2:35 AM | Unregistered CommenterDocBud

How can his article not mention that tomorrow is 5p-Monday, when the good citizens of England will be required to pay for plastic bags in supermarkets?

I shall be tempted to get up early to go to Sainsburys for a bottle of sherry and see what happens to me when I attempt to double-bag it in the self serve check-out. If they charge me an extra 5p, I will attempt to quadruple-bag it. Stay posted for results....

Oct 5, 2015 at 2:49 AM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart

Michael hart

I await your news with interest ^.^
If like me, you have found no evidence that CO2 could ever cause temperature to rise above its current level (let alone cause CAGW) then recycling is much more than just frustrating.

Oct 5, 2015 at 3:18 AM | Registered CommenterDung

When I was working we used to recycle PET, originally photo film eg X-ray films after cleaning. Wonderful idea, we got good clean product cheaply from those recovering the silver. Unfortunately the enthusiasm extended with the waste handlers throwing in ground up soft drink bottles which were none too clean, and followed up with the caps which were polyethylene/polypropylene. The result was worse looking resin and a mass of gunk that wrapped around the reactor stirrers. So the downtime and cleaning time made recycling more expensive. But the process now became political.

Much of the muck should go into lined pits and anaerobically decomposed to methane to burn. That might break even.

Oct 5, 2015 at 4:39 AM | Unregistered CommenterGraeme No.3

Having worked in a glass factory for nine months ('67/'68) before I joined the military, I learned, among other things, that the maximum ratio of cullet to virgin material is about 10/90. Increasing cullet load above 10% results in an inferior product and increased annealing problems. Since normal breakage & QC rejected product accounts for more than half that, there is very limited use for recycled glass in the production process. Now that most glass is required to be recycled, here in the states, huge mountains of it are accumulating while research proceeds trying to find some economic use for it. The glass makers can't use most of it.

Around '98, as a software engineer, I worked on a vision inspection system for a glass tube manufacturer; the above hadn't changed yet.


p.s. In the dark ages (when I was growing up) we had sane recycling of glass bottles (milk, soda, etc) by returning them to the bottlers to be sterilized & refilled. That's no longer permitted by law.

Oct 5, 2015 at 5:00 AM | Unregistered Commenterdadgervais

I find this article over negative on the benefits of recycling. Also depressing as we a are pretty good at sorting our home waste. There clearly needs to be more thought and care in how it is prioritised and done. The argument we should not try to recycle EVERYTHING makes sense. But we should clearly work out what is worth it, and focus on that. On the rest, we should aim to reduce what we use (eg. food packaging as mentioned above) - but not be obsessed about it.

Oct 5, 2015 at 6:13 AM | Unregistered Commenteroakwood

The law of unintended consequences at work. The higher the landfill tax, the larger the problem of illegal dumping of waste. Most of it occurs in the countryside, causing farmers and local authorities a huge problem, leading to massive environmental damage and added cost. The cost of collecting my recycled material every week (even though I only put it out about once a month) is enormous in terms of diesel used (because of my remote location) and manpower wasted.

As I recall, the EU directive on recycling arose because the Dutch had run out of landfill and wanted to ensure that every country was equally disadvantaged by having to recycle, even though most other European countries have huge redundant quarries just waiting to be filled.

As for plastic bags, well I bought a thousand at about 1p each, and will not pay anything to shops for their bags. I've noticed that most of the 4p that goes to charities will be to corrupt organisations like WWF, which is another good reason to use your own recyclable plastic bags and to tell the supermarkets that they shouldn't support corrupt charities.

Oct 5, 2015 at 6:46 AM | Registered CommenterPhillip Bratby

That EU landfill tax that's officially coupled to recycling .... laboring the point yet again - goes directly to the "near municipal" Wildlife Trusts = "charidees" - a situation that I personally see as iniquitous and very likely to result in more waste, incompetence and corruption.

The incompetence is plain to see - the waste and corruption less so since the "trusts" are seemingly stuffed with practiced ex-local council folk and get a very easy ride from the media due to their charity status. The plastic bag tax being a variation on the successful funding formula at work here.

In my locality the idiots on the local council have been braying about "the cuts" and closing municipal rubbish dumps "recycling centres" with the consequence that country lanes and patches of open land have been sprouting furniture and heaps of bagged rubbish - and the Wildlife Trust has been complaining about it .... duh...

Oct 5, 2015 at 7:57 AM | Registered Commentertomo

" The argument we should not try to recycle EVERYTHING makes sense. But we should clearly work out what is worth it, and focus on that."

In a free market economy that happens on its own, without any intervention from the government or pressure groups.

Oct 5, 2015 at 8:01 AM | Unregistered CommenterStonyground

because there was a 3d deposit on lemonade and beer bottles most were returned when empty. There was always a willing army of children on the lookout for lost bottles which could be used to buy sweets!

Oct 5, 2015 at 8:04 AM | Unregistered CommenterSandyS

SandyS. I was one of many kids who used to keep their eyes open for discarded lemonade, dandelion and burdock etc bottles; Tizer I recall.

Oct 5, 2015 at 8:15 AM | Registered CommenterPhillip Bratby

golf charlie 12.19 am

I don't know about square oranges but you can grow square watermelons already

Oct 5, 2015 at 8:20 AM | Unregistered CommenterMessenger

It is well known that despite propaganda to the alternative that recycling of most products is not financially efficient. Yet some of the habitual methods such as reusable milk bottles, returnable pop bottle tops and even the rag and bone man have disappeared. It has become a ritual in many households, fed by local government policy officers and apparently expensive schemes of recovery. A friend of mine was recently quite shocked when suspecting that I did not recycle, when I showed her that in fact by composting, using paper to light the fire and feeding the dog with waste food I produced very little for the recycling bin. The one aspect that really perturbs me however is the plastic milk bottle sack which fillls to overflowing every fortnight, I remember the barges on the Huang Po in Shanghai filled with plastic waste from Europe which was simply destined to be burned, I rest my case.

Oct 5, 2015 at 8:33 AM | Unregistered Commentertrefjon

What product of value is created as a consequence of recycling domestic waste, and that can be made at a cost lower than the value of that product? I can't think of anything.

For the most part the entire domestic recycling market is another feel-good, look-good deliver little scam. You could call it a waste of waste.

Oct 5, 2015 at 8:35 AM | Unregistered Commentercheshirered

John Tierney makes too much of the simplistic financial arguments, in my opinion. Very little is said about whether recycling actually reduces overall energy in the entire process.

For example, all the comparisons of weight of waste compared to weight of CO2 saved - so what? If someone really believes that reducing CO2 is a good thing, then even his 20 tons of "yard waste" (whatever that may be) to save 1 ton of CO2 may be worth while - he's only given one side of the data, with no mention of the cost of recycling those 20 tones.

Oct 5, 2015 at 8:45 AM | Unregistered Commentersteveta_uk

SandyS. I was one of many kids who used to keep their eyes open for discarded lemonade, dandelion and burdock etc bottles; Tizer I recall.
Oct 5, 2015 at 8:15 AM | Registered CommenterPhillip Bratby

And Corona.

Oct 5, 2015 at 8:49 AM | Unregistered Commentersplitpin

Check this hotel out.

So after Al Gore has saved the world does he go to one of his homes and eat his dinner off a China Plate that he put it in the dishwasher afterwards or does he throw it straight in the bin.

Oct 5, 2015 at 9:04 AM | Unregistered CommenterJamspid

"it’s still typically more expensive for municipalities to recycle household waste than to send it to a landfill."

This is a bogus argument. The aim of recycling isn't to save money.

Oct 5, 2015 at 9:10 AM | Registered CommenterPaul Matthews

No discussion of re-cycling is complete without re-visiting the classic Penn and Teller video, B-S. I have always resisted buying recycled toilet paper, :-), in the video you have people willing to do the recycling.

Oct 5, 2015 at 9:33 AM | Registered Commenterdennisa

Presumably when assessing the advisability of recycling household waste, there is a significant externality in form of people's time in sorting different materials.

Oct 5, 2015 at 9:51 AM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

Who needs plastic or paper bags at the supermarket at all?

Just throw one or two big sturdy shopping bags in the trunk of your car or in the saddle bag of your bicycle. After emptying your groceries in the fridge and pantry throw the bags back in the trunk for the next trip.

Plastic bags at the supermarkets in the Netherlands have been costing 50 cents for as long as I can remember and adapting to the bring-your-own-bag principle did not take long at all.

Oct 5, 2015 at 9:51 AM | Unregistered CommenterWijnand

In France we put all plastics, cans and cardboard in a single bag which disappears into an electric powered refuse truck never to be seen again. Bottles go into a bottle bank at the end of the street.
Does anyone know where it goes? No. Does anyone care where it goes? No. Does anyone know what it costs? No. It is just a feel good ritual performed weekly to assuage the Sustainability Gods.

PS. I wonder where they "recycle" all the used turbine blades?

Oct 5, 2015 at 10:33 AM | Unregistered CommenterIvor Ward

Green propaganda is recycled endlessly, and reported as new research. They get paid for their lack of effort, and assume this is how the commercial world functions.

Oct 5, 2015 at 10:48 AM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

Red Kola, Irn-Bru and Plain Lemonade for me.

Oct 5, 2015 at 11:26 AM | Unregistered CommenterSandyS


Sarsparilla in stone jars was the favourite of the kids who played in my local bomb hole ^.^
I did also like Ice Cream Soda but could not always find it.

P.S. and Ginger Beer hehe

Oct 5, 2015 at 11:30 AM | Registered CommenterDung

Oct 5, 2015 at 9:10 AM | Registered Commenter Paul Matthews

"it’s still typically more expensive for municipalities to recycle household waste than to send it to a landfill."

"This is a bogus argument. The aim of recycling isn't to save money."

The transaction used to be:
I own the waste (I paid for it)
It is surplice to requirements.
I pay the council to dispose of it.
It is taken away.

Can you explain exactly why this arrangement is unsatisfactory and even if you can do that; why it should be necessary to legislate to force me into a new situation?

Oct 5, 2015 at 11:46 AM | Registered CommenterDung

Over two years ago, I learned that this (IMHO) considerably less than beneficial - except perhaps to the pockets Al Gore, David Blood and Mary Robinson amongst others - ingathering and outsourcing of garbage would be mandatory in my neck of the woods.

Suffice it to say that I was far from favourably impressed - and I am even less so now. Those who might be interested in my findings are invited to view:

Wastelandia: Andrew Weaver et al‘s big green choru$ and $ymphony … in the key of Gore

Oct 5, 2015 at 11:53 AM | Registered CommenterHilary Ostrov

Do they pay you to sort your waste into x different coloured bags/bins/boxes?
No? Then rise up against this slavery!

I don't have a big problem with recycling. Paper, cardboard, glass, and certain plastics go into three large bins on our way to do the week's shopping on a Thursday morning. Garden waste and food waste are composted. Large garden waste and anything else too big to expect the bin men to collect gets taken to the local décheterie.
What I do dislike is being preached at about what good little people we all are because we have hit some total meaningless target or that what we are doing is somehow "saving the planet". And if the number of fires on waste storage sites in the UK doesn't come down there is sooner or later going to be a major backlash that side of the Channel!

PS --- Dung: The word is "surplus": "surplice" is something a cleric wears over his cassock.

Oct 5, 2015 at 12:03 PM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

@ BoFA "Wood burning stove makes short work of all but tin cans ;)"

Ah, but what about all that "carbon" going up the chimney? /sarc

Oct 5, 2015 at 12:28 PM | Registered Commenterdavidchappell

I live in the EU and under their regs. We have a waste collection every night of either organic or packaging. Bottles go to bottle bins placed at various points once a week and cardboard is collected from your door on that same day. Organic goes to compost, glass to landfill, packaging to landfill via an incinerator and the whole thing is cheap cheap cheap. We rinse nothing and have two small bins. Biodegradable plastic bin liners are available free. Broken appliances, old furniture, large volume garden waste is taken once a week after you give notice for it. No inconvenience, no nonsense and low cost. It can be done.

Oct 5, 2015 at 12:48 PM | Unregistered Commenterssat

ssat, Here in Corfu we have a better answer to broken appliances and old furniture.....we put them at the end of the drive and, miraculously, they vanish within an hour or two. Could be the Wombles of course but the vanishing always seems to be preceded by a pick-up full of gypsies!!

Oct 5, 2015 at 1:17 PM | Unregistered Commentermeltemian

Whatever the EU regulations, the interpretations thereof are almost numberless. Where I am (and I've described our procedure above) there are about 20 communes in the canton most of which have their own individual interpretation of all these rules. Half-a-dozen communes will operate collectively because they don't need full time refuse collection personnel or equipment and they will normally have the same rules about what is to be sorted and how. The next-door 'SIVOM' may well operate differently.

I would point out that none of the communes I know require their residents to separate waste into nine separate containers! And if any commune tried it on there would be fairly soon a delegation outside the mairie calling (the equivalent of) "aye, ye're jokin, pal!"
One of the great benefits of French local government: there is a guy at the end of the road with whom the buck stops when it comes to day-to-day affairs like this. But just how do you get the message across to the faceless officials and complacent councillors in Hackney or Wanstead or, even worse, in Glasgow?

Oct 5, 2015 at 1:24 PM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

I don't care much what they do in the good ole US of A.

There is this.

Yeah, yeah they all talk about sustainability and recycling but talk and lies are what they are all about in Brussels.

Where the lowly consumer is browbeaten, harangued and ordered by diktat and by using fines and recycle his bit of rubbish. Ref: EU/UK peddles SUSTAINABILITY BRUSSELS-WESTMINSTER - RECYCLING IS JUST ANOTHER BIG SCAM .

It ain't funny, it really isn't....the tat that is produced by manufacturers of the corporate blob in the EU and its enforced bog standard - the CE mark, where from dodgy light bulbs, to cheating emissions tests via technology inserted diesel engines, to imperfect silicone breast implants to selling cheap horse meat as expensive beef products - in the EU everything is jerry built [pun intended] then contrast with the monumental hypocrisy.... corporate blob urine extraction inc PLANNED OBSOLESCENCE

Yep, they Talk the talk but never go on the walk.


Here in Europe, more particularly here in the UK the recycling scam is costing us all £billions for not a right lot and if one takes into account the rather salient fact - man made CO2 is a life giving gas and not responsible for "runaway warming" - or any warming come to mention it, then anyway: the whole shebang is up the creek.

Recycling is a waste - yup.

Though, it is a jobs bonanza for local councils and EU corporate leviathans like nothing but a tax grab by HMG - other than that - recycling is a waste of waste.

Bang it in landfill and no argument.

Oct 5, 2015 at 1:33 PM | Unregistered CommenterAthelstan.

Mike Jackson

I know how to spell surplus...'onest! Its just that my keyboard keeps having senior moments and does not understand what I am typing.

Oct 5, 2015 at 1:58 PM | Registered CommenterDung

Dung, I'm not likely to have an update today, or tomorrow. In any case, couldn't one of our Welsh of Scottish readers tell us if Tesco etc now vigorously police their self-checkout lanes with plastic-bag Nazis?

Looking at some supermarket websites, I see that Tesco actually state "Save the planet. Go bagless" and that it will help to "tackle climate change". What can I say? In the good ol' US of A when someone packs your bags for you, it is normal to ask the customer "Paper or Plastic?" I'm sure there must be a market for hybrids, if only to mess around with green brains.

Oct 5, 2015 at 2:57 PM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart

Regarding 'recycling', Lou McKenzie pointed out to me that fly ash from coal fired power stations is a vital component of concrete - such as Breeze blocks etc and equally importantly - road surface.
Thus if we close our coal fired power stations, we shall have no source of fly ash (wood ash is of no use). So, without importing vast shiploads of the stuff (probably from China) we shan't be able to build things or have new road surfaces!

I'm off to bang my head against a wall and scream a bit.

Oct 5, 2015 at 5:17 PM | Unregistered CommenterPhilip Foster

@michael hart Oct 5, 2015 at 2:57 PM

Dung, I'm not likely to have an update today, or tomorrow. In any case, couldn't one of our Welsh of Scottish readers tell us if Tesco etc now vigorously police their self-checkout lanes with plastic-bag Nazis?

Sturgeonland: Tesco and Asda (not been in other supermarkets) simply removed the bags from self-checkout. If you need one you must touch the "need assistance" icon.

Home deliveries: Tesco - no bags = no charge, with bags = 35p charge. I noted that the implantation in England has many exemptions, one (according to DM) being for home deliveries - not checked if this is true.

On topic: I recycle paper & cardboard, metal, PET and glass*. All food waste is for dogs who also enjoy licking plastic and metal containers clean. Garden waste is composted or bonfired. Rest is land-fill.

As others say, I too believe the recycling agenda is like all the other green ideas akin to a religion with no financial or environmental benefit.

*much of UK glass is "recycled and not land-filled" by being mixed with aggregates for hard core in building roads etc.

Oct 5, 2015 at 8:14 PM | Unregistered CommenterPcar


" The argument we should not try to recycle EVERYTHING makes sense. But we should clearly work out what is worth it, and focus on that."

In a free market economy that happens on its own, without any intervention from the government or pressure groups.

Not necessarily the case. In the mid-1950's my father was Medical Officer of Health in Bulawayo in what was then Rhodesia. He managed to track some water pollution down to discharges from the local Kodak factory. While they weren't all that happy about the fine imposed, they (at least said they) were grateful for the information because they saved quite a lot of money recovering and reusing expensive chemicals from their effluent. I suppose they were already profitable enough, so there was no market force pushing them to look for further efficiencies. Sixty years on, Kodak doesn't amount to much anymore, but I suspect that, even today, the market doesn't get us the ultimate in lean efficiency.

Mind you, government intervention generally makes things worse, and domestic recycling is nothing more than window dressing. Best not to generate unnecessary waste in the first place. In Australia (elsewhere too I suspect) the public sector generates huge amounts of unnecessary waste. If they were to fix that they'd have achieved far more than they ever will by recycling, no matter how many colours of bin they give us.

Oct 5, 2015 at 11:26 PM | Unregistered CommenterRobert Swan

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