Why Recycle?

It feels good to do it. But recycling doesn't always save money or protect the environment.

"I think that it's narrow and shortsighted to merely consider the economic value of recycling," says Harvey Ruvin, now the Clerk of Court for Dade County. "There are values here that go to future generations. It develops a mindset and a relationship with the environment that is more custodial, more in keeping with where we should be in the face of scarce natural resources."

Higer, the solid waste department spokeswoman, adds: "Conserving resources is the bottom line, or better use of resources."

The false landfill crisis of the late Eighties mirrored a broader public belief that the world is rapidly running out of basic resources. In 1972 The Limits to Growth predicted that the planet's supply of gold would be exhausted by 1981, mercury by 1985, tin by 1987, zinc by 1990, petroleum by 1992, and copper, lead, and natural gas by 1993. (In 1926 the federal Oil Conservation Board predicted that the supply of oil would last seven more years.) Today the Interior Department estimates that we have another 24 years' worth of gold, 40 years' worth of mercury and zinc, 28 of tin, 65 of copper, and 35 of lead. The scarcity of a substance is usually reflected in its price; the World Resources Institute estimates that during the two decades preceding 1990 the average price of all metals and minerals fell by more than 40 percent. Yet the notion of a fixed and dwindling supply of nonrenewable resources is stuck in the national consciousness.

The less-alarming timeframe now forecast by the federal government is based on current production rates and on known reserves. It doesn't take into account the fact that new mineral and petroleum deposits are discovered all the time, that technology improves as people compete to augment these resources or seek more efficient use of existing ones, and that history is replete with examples of societies developing alternatives to traditional materials and fuels. In the Nineteenth Century, a genuine crisis did arise when whales were hunted to near-extinction; whale oil, used for household lighting and industrial lubrication, doubled in price in a decade. But economic progress didn't grind to a halt. Consumers switched to petroleum and kept going. Before whale oil became expensive, petroleum had seemed a wildly unlikely alternative -- just as synthetic fuels, solar power, or nuclear energy seem to some consumers now.

What about petroleum, the black magic from which plastics spring, the mysterious liquid that propels us in decadent air-conditioned splendor down South Dixie Highway toward our next Tupperware party? Industrialized countries now use 23 percent less petroleum per unit of production than they did a quarter-century ago. Telecommuting alone saves millions of barrels per year in the U.S. Like the Mobro 4000 garbage barge and its search for a dumping ground, the OPEC oil embargo of the Seventies was a temporary phenomenon that left behind erroneous beliefs about permanent scarcity: In the first case, the Mobro's individual regulatory and disposal problems were used as anecdotal evidence of a paucity of landfill space. The oil embargo, with its resulting higher gas prices and government conservation campaigns, implied deeper, permanent shortages. Proven reserves of petroleum are expected to last another 46 years, natural gas 58 years at 1988 production rates, according to the American Petroleum Institute.

No scientist or economist has ever seriously claimed to know the extent of the world's undiscovered oil reserves, or sought to predict how changes in future technology, such as telecommuting, might allow more efficient use of them. This doesn't negate the fact that important resources like petroleum and bauxite are finite, but being finite doesn't make them essential or irreplaceable. We may run out of oil in 50 years or 500, but unless we run out of the ability to think, it's not necessarily the end of the world.

Perhaps the favorite mantra of recyclers is that every ton of recycled newspapers saves seventeen trees. The value of this salvation is not absolute. If you drive from Miami to one of the paper mills that dot southern Georgia, you will see tobacco fields, corn fields, soybean fields, pasturage, and a vast expanse of roadside tree farms (and placards bearing the slogan "Trees Grow Jobs" tacked to some of the trunks, supplied to farmers as part of a federal government program to boost national timber supplies). The time to conserve pristine forests was a century or two ago, when they existed on a large scale. Today the pulpwood used by paper mills is not clear-cut from virgin groves but grown as an agricultural crop like any other. Trees are hardly nonrenewable resources, as evidenced by the fact that U.S. timber supplies are three times what they were in 1920. The U.S. Forest Service reports that the production of timber between 1950 and 1992 increased by eight percent annually.

The remanufacturing of recyclables like paper, glass, and plastic has been shown to save energy, but if you lived in coastal southern Georgia, you might have trouble appreciating this virtue. De-inking old newspapers and remanufacturing them into fresh newsprint creates smells, pollution, noise, and visual blight, just as producing virgin paper does.

If one considers what goes into the recycling of many plastic soda bottles and automobile batteries, the picture can become downright disturbing. In June last year an Associated Press reporter visited several makeshift factories in India where teenagers and children melt plastic bottles and cut open car batteries. The laborers make about 30 cents a day and wear no gloves or masks to protect themselves from acid burns and toxic fumes; the factories operate without any pollution controls. According to Greenpeace, the environmental activist organization, the U.S. exported 23 shiploads of plastic beverage bottles to India in 1995. Pakistan and Bangladesh also received enormous shipments of recylables.

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