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The real burden of recycling

| Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015, 9:00 p.m.

If you're worried about the planet, please make sure your trash is buried in a landfill; there's plenty of space available.

On the surface, the phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle” might seem like a sensible call to action for those who want to limit carbon emissions or reduce the amount of waste left behind for future generations.

The reality, however, is that the costs associated with the process of recycling almost always outweigh the benefits.

Even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says it only makes sense economically and environmentally to recycle about 35 percent of discarded materials. Among those materials are paper and aluminum cans, according to the agency.

Recycling 1 ton of paper or aluminum cans, the agency says, can save about 3 tons of carbon dioxide emissions over producing those materials anew.

But not so fast. Paper mills pay for the trees they process. If it were cost-effective to recycle scrap paper, producers would be beating down your door to buy it. But they aren't. That means it's more expensive and more resource-intensive to recycle old paper than to cut and pulp pine trees and then replant seedlings for processing when mature.

Plastic provides another cautionary tale. Given the recent dramatic decline in crude oil prices, it is now cheaper to make a new plastic container than to recycle an old one. Even if that were not true, the EPA says that recycling a ton of plastic saves only about a ton of carbon dioxide. However, that estimate doesn't take into account the water most consumers use to rinse their plastic containers before they put them into a recycling bin.

Glass is an even worse recyclable. To reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 1 ton you have to recycle 3 tons of glass. If one includes the cost of collecting glass waste in small quantities from neighborhoods, and the pollution produced by the collection trucks and the recycling process itself, glass recycling creates more greenhouse gas emissions and is more expensive than making new glass, which comes primarily from sand, an abundant raw material.

More rational environmental policies would consider the costs and benefits of recycling programs and scrap those that are wasteful and harmful to the environment. If recycling were truly cost-effective, private companies would be lined up at your doorstep to buy your trash.

Don't look now because they're not there.

William F. Shughart II is research director of the Independent Institute. Brad Bumsted is off today.

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