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Plastic Recycling vs. Climate Change: Part 2 – Worshiping False Idols

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Erik Devereux
December 16, 2022

In the first column of this series (online here) I argue against municipal plastic recycling programs because such recycling does not work and there are negative consequences for the environment. Before this series delves deeper into issues with municipal recycling programs, I want to address how it came to pass that many local governments around the United States became such fervent champions of recycling. This narrative connects to the difficulties that many well-intentioned and good-hearted citizens have with making public policy based on sound science. This “disease” afflicts both those on the right and those on the left to nearly the same degree and with many of the same negative side effects when it comes to ineffectual and inefficient policies.

For those who have read my past columns in the PA Times it should be obvious that I tilt in the progressive direction, championing as I have a very interventionist and strong federal government that can solve issues such as inequality, poverty and climate change. That said, nothing drives me up the wall faster than “knee jerk” environmentalism. At its core, the environmental movement on the political left drifts into animistic pseudo-religious beliefs centered on the idea that the Earth itself is a living creature (or perhaps a goddess) that humans are despoiling (if not outright torturing) through such practices as landfilling trash.

The photograph of a landfill accompanying this article probably will elicit a negative emotional response; it certainly does for me. Like most people, I do not spend much time hanging around the dump nor do I want to look at landfills or open-pit mines or other similar activities that lack visual appeal. One problem here is that I often despoil the environment in ways that are invisible just as you do when you drive a gasoline car or run a furnace that uses fossil fuels. We have centuries of established science to build upon to make sound public policies that are not based solely on our emotional responses to sensory stimuli.

Here are two examples of how an emotional approach to the environment leads us to make incorrect judgements related to the environment.

  • Long-term storage of spent fuel from nuclear power plants. Most of the popular perceptions about this spent fuel are shaped by frequently used language that this waste will remain radioactive for hundreds of thousands or even millions of years. This is true but it also means that the radiation in this instance does not pose a threat to human health or the environment. Radioactive materials with a very long half-life are barely emitting any radiation at all! What is problematic is not the radiation but the chemistry—the heavy metals in the spent fuel are very toxic (think along the lines of lead). Focusing on the radiation has diverted public attention away from the real problem in the disposal of this waste. If we can find means to make these materials chemically inert, then they safely can be sequestered for millions of years.
  • Materials in landfills that do not decay. I often encounter language about landfills that refers to how slowly discarded items decay, implying there is something terribly wrong if the material in a landfill remains substantially intact hundreds or thousands of years from now. This also is completely backwards. What we clearly want to prevent is such decay because that tends to release problematic substances such as methane gas. A landfill that locks everything inside for as long as possible is the best landfill. As my first column in this series explained, we should demand plastics used for consumer purposes that will not decay in the ground for millennia so that the carbon in those plastics remains sequestered.

The short story about the origins of municipal recycling programs intertwines misinformed environmental sentiment among citizens, industry efforts to deflect growing concern about plastic waste and municipal governments sandwiched in the middle. Rather than restrict access to popular single-use plastic products, or mandate that industry had to take its waste back, or defend landfilling waste, municipalities embraced mixed-waste residential recycling programs on a grand scale. Citizens demonstrated their approval through their voluntary compliance. Government leaders then could promote the diversion of large quantities of waste from local landfills to polish environmental bona fides. As we now know in hindsight, the immediate result was the export of billions of tons of plastic waste from the United States to Southeast Asia. Downstream from that (literally) is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch among other negative outcomes.

A scientific approach to waste management must begin with an admittedly imposing subject: thermodynamics. The intractable laws of thermodynamics dictate that most claims about recycling are false. The language of recycling suggests that it will require much less energy to produce new goods from old, and thus have a smaller environmental footprint, than it requires to make new goods from raw materials. Thermodynamics says this cannot be true. To actually solve environmental problems, governments need to begin by following the science. Doing otherwise is a ticket to real disasters such as the current level of uncontained plastic pollution.


Author: Erik Devereux is a consultant to nonprofits and higher education and is an executive-in-residence at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland. He has a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Political Science, 1985) and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin (Government, 1993). He is the author of Methods of Policy Analysis: Creating, Deploying, and Assessing Theories of Change (available for free here). Email: [email protected] Twitter: @eadevereux.

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