Recycling: Wasteful?

I’m a big fan of recycling. I try to recycle whatever I can — paper, plastics, glass, aluminum — whenever I can. I was under the impression that recycling produces less waste than dumping in landfills and is better for the environment in general. Because of this, I was willing to pay the extra costs (indirectly through taxes) to support municipal recycling programs. Penn and Teller beg to differ:

If you don’t want to watch the entire thing, here’s the take home message: recycling paper and plastic is wasteful and costs a lot more than landfilling. Penn and Teller linger a lot on the wasted money — which I don’t find to be convincing on its own — but they also point out how energy intensive recycling is. They point out that aluminum cans are the only items that make economic sense to recycle.

What they fail to mention (and what are much more important) are the other two R’s: reducing and reusing. Recycling leads to a fair amount of waste production. To truly make a contribution towards environmental protection we must decrease the amount of packaging we purchase and reuse whatever we can. All those plastic bottles of water you buy? Why not drink tap water? You can even filter it if you don’t like the idea of drinking it straight from the tap, even though municipal tap water must meet higher standards of purity than bottled water.

(Via the Skepchicks.)


  1. #1 Tony P
    January 14, 2007

    There is one advantage to recycling.

    Here in Rhode Island our central landfill is now the highest point in the state. Jerimoth Hill used to be the highest at 812 feet.

    If it weren’t for some recycling that landfill would be exhausted that much sooner. So it does serve some purpose.

  2. #2 Chris Hyland
    January 14, 2007

    I can’t speak for the US, but in the UK we have pretty much run out of space for landfills, and that has always been the point of recycling things like paper and plastic as far as I was aware.

  3. #3 Cairnarvon
    January 14, 2007

    I blogged about this episode a while ago. Not the most coherent or well-researched rebuttal in history, but still.
    It’s good to get people thinking about this sort of thing, though. People harming the environment while thinking they’re helping is more painful than people just harming the environment.

    On the whole, landfill space isn’t really a problem, even in the UK, as far as I know. With all the regulations they’re subject to, I’d rather live next to a landfill than a recycling center (or centre), and empty space isn’t that hard to find, but the problem is that landfills have a terrible image, and thus a heavier impact on property values.
    I might be mistaken, though.

  4. #4 Sacha
    January 14, 2007

    I am so glad to see someone else pondering this episode too. Penn & Teller’s show is quite funny, but after I saw this episode a few weeks ago, every time I go to recycle paper or plastic I can’t help but think I’m being more wasteful than if I just threw it away. I’m not sure if this is the truth, but where do we get better information? Environmentalists use scare tactics and lies worse than anyone, so I hesitate to believe any of their “facts.” Everyone has an agenda.

    Cairnarvon – I had also noticed Penn & Teller didn’t really touch on glass. I wonder why that was. Glass makes up the largest percentage of my recycled goods.

    For now, it looks like reduce and reuse are my mottos.

  5. #5 Seth Needler
    January 14, 2007

    Recycling is a good idea, unquestionably, BUT…
    The main problem with the heavy emphasis on recycling as a sort of mea culpa for other environmental misbehaviors is its complete failure to challenge consumerism.
    It’s OK to buy as much as you want, no matter how it’s packaged, as long as you “recycle” it – instead of throwing it away. Of course, the poor way in which most people carry out their recycling (mixing different materials together, adding in non-recyclables, etc), as well as the lack of demand by businesses for recycled materials, have made recycling a costly and wasteful endeavor.
    The fact that it enables people to feel good about their environmental behavior, even as they consume energy and resources with wild abandon, is even more of a problem.

  6. #6 Stephanie
    January 14, 2007

    Definitely sounds like on of those no-win situations. I’m rather fond of recycling but I can certainly see where the process needs improvement if at all possible. But I would expect landfill space to be a consideration over time.

    I’ve long since come to the conclusion that living in a more environmentally friendly manner means picking and choosing. Everything you do is going to have an impact; you just have to figure out which impacts make the most sense to you.

  7. #7 Mr Willi
    January 14, 2007

    Generally, anything on Bullshit! should be taken with a grain of salt. I like to think of Penn and Teller as psuedo-skeptics, they talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk. Their definition of BS is basically anything that doesn’t agree with their libertarian beliefs. Take the episodes on climate change and secondhand smoke, for instance, where they called into doubt the real science on both and supported the junk science instead. Penn and Teller, I think, are skeptics in the same way creationists are “skeptical” of evolution — they just want the facts to fit their worldview.

    Hey, I’m glad they’re calling BS on UFOs, psychics and ghosts when most other channels just pander to audiences, but until they realize skepticism isn’t about cherry-picking those facts that support their beliefs, they really belong in the same category as Ken Ham, Steve Milloy and dozens of others who claim the title “skeptic” but are really nothing of the sort.

  8. #8 jeffk
    January 15, 2007

    Yeah. Many “skeptics” follow the P&T libertarian formula. The recipe is you measure everything in dollars and the cheapest wins.

  9. #9 Mike Bunter
    January 15, 2007

    Penn & Teller (according to Sourcewatch) are fellows at the Cato Institute and apparently like to debunk ‘junk science'(where have we heard that phrase before?). I think we know where they are coming from when we consider the reaction to their spot about global warming. What’s worrying is that so many people thought they might have a point when it comes to recycling – perhaps a look at this http://www.environmentaldefense.org/documents/611_ACF17F.htm (admittedly old) article might show what they are saying to be BS.
    As far as the UK is concerned, I agree with Chris, our landfill sites are getting fewer and fewer, they do nothing for the groundwater, and are increasingly expensive. I would frankly rather not wish to live next to a landfill…

    However, local councils seem to be increasingly in love with incineration rather than recycling (because asking people to be responsible is sooo difficult) – another example of an attempted techological fix to a social, environmental and economic problem.

  10. #10 MattXIV
    January 15, 2007

    The US isn’t low on landfill space – we actually import trash from Canada.

  11. #11 AndyS
    January 15, 2007

    I would accept P & T’s explaination of a magic trick — but not much else.

  12. #12 Thomas Palm
    January 16, 2007

    This site has a table with resource use for producing recycled vs virgin paper that basically agrees with what I’ve seen in Sweden.
    There is some recycling that is of dubious value, paper isn’t one of them.

    P&T are very funny magicians, but that doesn’t make them competent to judge scientific issues. If they want to expose bullshit they should stick to fraud closer to their own profession, people like Uri Geller. When talking about global warming or other environmental issues they are just celebrities with a big mouth and a libertarian agenda.

  13. #13 Douglas Watts
    January 21, 2007

    Never mind the recycling stuff, this rerun of P&T is being actively used by hundreds of thousands of people as scientific PROOF that global warming is bullshit.

    Nice job, Penn & Teller. Thanks for the bullshit. Where do I recycle it?

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