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Is Recycling Worth the Effort? The Great Recycling Hoax

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This is Manshyiat Naser—the "City of Garbage"—a suburb of Cairo where all of the refuse of an overpopulated city are brought to be picked over and recycled by the poorest of the poor.

This is Manshyiat Naser—the "City of Garbage"—a suburb of Cairo where all of the refuse of an overpopulated city are brought to be picked over and recycled by the poorest of the poor.

Does Recycling Matter?

Recycling takes a lot of work. You have to separate items from your garbage and make them suitable for recycling. The people who collect it want you to remove labels from cans, make sure that the plastic you are putting in the bin is the right kind, ensure that glass is clean of food scraps, and so on.

It's unpaid work foisted on you either by regulations that compel you to donate your time and effort for the greater good or social pressure that makes you feel guilty if you don't. But does recycling do any good at all?

Impoverished millions eke out a living by scavenging for scraps amidst the mountains of garbage generated by polluted, overpopulated cities.

Impoverished millions eke out a living by scavenging for scraps amidst the mountains of garbage generated by polluted, overpopulated cities.

The Recycling Bandwagon

A couple of years ago, my city jumped on the recycling bandwagon and made everyone buy a big blue recycling bin on wheels. Not just a blue recycling box, mind you, but a huge monstrosity with wheels and metal bars that allow the high-tech recycling truck to grab and lift the contents into its bin and then take our recyclable paper, glass, and metals to the local recycling center.

To finance this new project and to pay for the expensive high-tech garbage—I mean recycling—truck, every homeowner had to pay an extra $200 on their taxes. But it was a small price to pay—or so we were told. We were helping to save the environment and reduce what was going into the landfill. "Reduce, reuse, recycle" was the mantra of the day.

Similar recycling initiatives have spread throughout cities in North America. But the truth that no one wants to talk about is that it does not really work, and recycling is a big waste of time. Don't get me wrong—I want to save the planet. But recycling is like a bandaid on arterial bleeding. It does no good, but it does make us feel good. It's like taking a sugar placebo when the doctor should have prescribed chemotherapy; you may feel that you are getting better, but the cancer is still growing. It's time to stop self-delusion and tackle the real problem.

Overconsumption leads to too much garbage.

Overconsumption leads to too much garbage.

Why Recycling Does Not Work

First, let's talk about why recycling does not work. In principle, it should be taking newspapers, pop cans, plastic bottles, and other junk and converting it into new things so we don't have to cut down as many trees, pump as much oil or mine as much metal. These are noble goals.

But, in fact, there is little market for these recyclables. In my city, it came to light that the recycling center was overstocked with newsprint and plastics and could not find buyers for all the material. In fact, it was losing money. So in went more tax money to keep it afloat. And the excess newsprint and plastics—where did they go? Into the landfill, of course.

This bizarre charade of collecting recyclables only to then take them to the same landfill where the rest of our garbage ended up after spending hours painstakingly separating them from our other refuse is something that happens all the time in cities throughout Canada and the U.S., but no one likes to talk about it because it's like "the emperor's new clothes." As long as we pretend that the blue boxes are going to save the environment, we can go on with our business of consuming and not feel guilty that our economic system—our very culture—is designed for mass, self-caused extinction.

Plastic bottles washed up on the shore: an all too familiar sight.

Plastic bottles washed up on the shore: an all too familiar sight.

Recycling Actually Poisons the Oceans

In theory, the recyclables you put in your recycling bin are going to stay out of the landfill and help save the environment. However, the ugly truth is different. In many cases, the recycling center has no market for what you provide them, and they take your plastics and glass and toss them in the landfill. You could have done this yourself at no cost, but in order to maintain the illusion that we are helping the environment, the government charges you extra money and makes you peel labels off of bottles and cans just so they can end up in the same place through a roundabout route.

But not all recycling ends up in the garbage; some of it actually does get recycled. And when it does, it is even worse for the environment. You may have seen pictures of oceans choked by floating islands of plastic garbage and read about the alarming fact that whales and sea birds often end up with plastic inside their stomachs. Have you ever wondered where that plastic comes from? Most of it is from recycling.

You see, when your local recycling center collects the recycling, it usually sells it to China to get sorted. There, armies of low-paid people pick through the junk looking for the most valuable things they can recycle, and whatever is left—usually low-grade plastic—is unceremoniously dumped into rivers that carry it out to sea.

Of course, not all the plastic in the ocean finds its way there because of the unholy alliance between your recycling center and the recycling sweatshops of Asia, but most of it comes from there. So, in fact, when you are wasting your time washing out empty cans and peeling labels in order to keep your environment clean, you are actually contributing to the death of our oceans. But who cares—doing something is what counts—even if that something accomplishes the opposite of what it is supposed to.



Four Reasons Recycling Is Actually Useless

  1. Recycling wastes fuel to transport and process waste, and so creates more pollution than it prevents.
  2. Most recyclables actually end up in landfill because there is no market for them. Collecting recyclables and separating them from the rest of your garbage is a waste of time because most of it ends up in your local landfill anyway.
  3. In many cases, the recycling collected locally is shipped to Asian countries for processing. They sort out the best stuff and then dump the rest into the rivers, and it finds its way into our oceans. In this way, a city thousands of miles from the ocean may be indirectly dumping its garbage into the sea via this indirect trade route with China.
  4. Recycling is a feel-good band-aid that really does not address the root cause of the problem: There are too many single-use products, and we overconsume them.
Much of the world lives in overcrowded slums and shanty towns because there are too many people in some areas and not many in others.

Much of the world lives in overcrowded slums and shanty towns because there are too many people in some areas and not many in others.

The Problem

The problem is that even if recycling worked as intended, which it does not, it would still be like sticking a finger in a dyke to stem the flood of water. It is too little too late.

The real problem is that there are nearly seven billion people on this planet, and these people all want and need food, clothing, fuel, and space. In addition to their needs, these seven billion people also have wants that go beyond bare survival: drugs, exotic foods, two-car garages, or whatever the local equivalent of the middle-class dream might be.

To feed these needs and wants, we are despoiling the planet. We must extract more and more to meet the needs of today because who cares about tomorrow? Deep-sea fishing trawlers now drag their nets along the ocean floor, allowing nothing to escape, killing fish and dolphins, and scraping the ecosystem of the ocean floor into a watery desert. The result is a temporary rise in fish production but also a headlong rush toward an unsustainable cliff.

Already, the cod fishery off of Newfoundland, which only a few hundred years ago was so rich that early explorers reported being able to fish simply by dipping buckets into the sea, has completely collapsed. The tuna is on the verge of extinction, and as it becomes more scarce, prices go up, which fuels the incentive for more overfishing and illegal fishing.

Some major corporations are storing tons of tuna in deep freezers, betting on the day that it goes completely extinct so that they can sell the now-rare stock at huge profits. A major scientific study predicts that all of the world's fisheries will collapse by 2050 due to overfishing. One billion people rely on fish as their main food source. And so it goes on.

And the destruction of the planet is being fueled not only by the legitimate needs of a hungry world but also by the perverse and selfish needs of humankind, the only predator who does not hunt for food. In Africa, the elephant is being wiped out by poachers so that they can steal their ivory tusks. The rhinoceros is being driven to extinction by Chinese traditional medical quackery that believes that it is nature's cure for poorly endowed men.

And in Cambodia, the ancient rainforests are being burned and slashed because the roots of a particular tree produce a chemical used in the production of ecstasy. In South America, the rainforest is being destroyed to make room for cocoa production used in the cocaine trade as well as ranches to feed our appetites for cheap burgers.

Recycling bins

Recycling bins

The Delusion

Despite these signs of approaching catastrophe, we barely notice that the canary in the coal mine has stopped singing. This is because—in the West especially—we have been able to keep the ugly stuff away from us and in places, most of us have never heard of. A genocidal civil war wages in the Congo over control of rare minerals used in the manufacture of cellphones, but we line up to buy the latest release and do not care. We grow fat and do not care that our mother earth is shriveling.

Some deluded conspiracy theorists see any effort to curtail our out-of-control population as part of a scheme by the New World Order to take over the world. These fearmongers are scared of the wrong thing, and their paranoia prevents us from dealing with the real issue. Others focus their opposition on the so-called Agenda 21, the United Nations action plan for sustainable development as a threat to our way of life.

What to Do

In order to deal with the problem, we must understand what it is. The problem is that we are a selfish species, and there are too many of us. No amount of recycling, or even cutting down consumption, will adequately counteract the amount of land sea and air that each human uses. And the fact is that our economic model requires overconsumption and population growth, so as bad as things are now, they will only get worse as time goes on - unless we do something about it.

But if we are going to save ourselves, we need to start seeing overpopulation and consumption growth as the real enemies rather than indicators of progress and economic activity. We are 7 billion people, and more and more land around the world is being taken over by shanty towns or suburbs. Our roads scar the landscape - great arteries to feed this bloated enterprise.

Now imagine a better world. One where there are a lot fewer humans. Not a world where everyone has died from a plague or famine, though this may be closer than you think, but a world in which people made a conscious decision to reduce their population to a manageable limit, such as one or two billion people. A world that did not engage in stupid doctrinal arguments against birth control and condemned women in most of the developing world to a life of semi-slavery and poverty with their children picking scraps out of a garbage dump (which is how most of the world recycles).

A less populated world would have abundant wealth for its inhabitants. The pie would be the same, but everyone would get a better and larger slice. And in time, perhaps the pie would even get bigger. The oceans and rivers would recover, and plants, animals and fish would come back. We owed this to ourselves - for the sake of our children and for the sake of this planet.

Compacted cardboard

Compacted cardboard


The following sources were consulted in the writing of this article:

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2013 Robert P