Dear Umbra,

Some time ago, the public radio program This American Life, hosted by Ira Glass, was about recycling. Glass reported, “Experts agree that we have plenty of landfill space for the foreseeable future.” He proposed that recycling therefore did little more than make us feel good. The hapless person he interviewed came up with no better response to that than, “Well, what’s wrong with feeling good?”

Glass pointed out that recycling paper costs less than using raw materials such as trees, but that was not true of other recyclables such as glass. Besides, he said, we are in no danger of running out of sand. He never mentioned rubber, metals, or that demon of all “disposables,” plastic. Nor did he mention the jobs created by the industry or the long-term benefits of the Earth-stewardship mindset that recycling fosters.

What do you say to the idea that recycling is of little real benefit to the world?

Nancy
Cedar Bluffs, Neb.

Dearest Nancy,

Props on “hapless.”

Ira Glass is correct: We have plenty of landfill space for the foreseeable future. The whole garbage crisis, instigated by an infamous — and hapless — trash barge, turns out to have been a misguided freakout. (We refer here to the Mobro, which set sail from Long Island, N.Y., in 1987, only to be turned away from several ports of call and left to wander the seas in a telegenic depiction of trash-disposal dilemmas.) But, unlike many misguided freakouts, it’s had positive consequences. We now think about our trash. We may not think about it enough, and recycling might have the unwanted side effect of making us feel better about buying disposable containers, but at least we have a language for talking about the mounds of garbage we consume and the wrapping it comes in.

Recycling may be habit-forming.

And recycling does do more than make us feel good. It has confirmed environmental benefits: Manufacturing widgets, gizmos, and thingies using recycled materials is easier on the environment than doing so using new materials. Measurements such as financial costs or the quantity of landfill space are less important than the environmental and health impacts of sourcing, processing, and shipping raw materials. Our sand supplies may be infinite and inexpensive, as Glass reportedly reported. But used glass bottles are also infinite and inexpensive, with the added convenience of being cheaper to transform into new glass bottles. The debate is over, and recycling wins. Yippee!

From an environmental standpoint, recycling is vital. As our population and the prevalence of packaging rise, recycling does make a small dent (even while the other two cornerstones of the environmental troika, “reduce” and “reuse,” are sadly ignored). And landfills themselves are no innocent wildflowers dotting the landscape. Piles of trash lying smushed together are fairly disgusting, seeping dubious goo and farting to beat an 8-year-old on a school bus. The leachate of our trash melange contains dangerous toxins. Diverting garbage of all sorts becomes increasingly urgent as electronics consumption (and thus disposal) rises. Recycling innocent tuna cans forms a habit that may eventually pave the way for recycling cell phones and car batteries.

As for the other benefits of recycling, you’ve succinctly stated them in your question. I can do no better. So to the idea that recycling is of little real benefit to the world, I say, “Pfaugh!”

Habitually,
Umbra