Recycling Is Garbage

America today has a good deal more landfill space available than it did 10 years ago. Landfills are scarce in just a few places, notably the Northeast, partly because of local economic realities (open land is expensive near cities) but mainly because of local politics. Environmentalists have prevented new landfills from opening by propounding another myth. . . .

Our garbage will poison us. By mentioning Love Canal, Dittersdorf made landfills sound like the Slough of Despond, Bunyan’s dread swamp. But it’s not fair to compare modern municipal-trash landfills with Love Canal, an old industrial dump filled with large concentrations of toxic chemicals that seeped into the ground when a school was, stupidly, built on the site. (Even so, it’s not clear that any of the schoolchildren were poisoned. Exhaustive scientific studies around Love Canal haven’t detected any increase in cancer rates.)

Today’s landfills for municipal trash are filled mostly with innocuous materials like paper, yard waste and construction debris. They contain small amounts of hazardous wastes, like lead and mercury, but studies have found that these poisons stay trapped inside the mass of garbage even in the old, unlined dumps that were built before today’s stringent regulations. So there’s little reason to worry about modern landfills, which by Federal law must be lined with clay and plastic, equipped with drainage and gas-collection systems, covered daily with soil and monitored regularly for underground leaks.

The small-time operators who ran the old municipal dumps can’t afford to provide these safeguards, which is why corporations have moved in, opening huge facilities that might serve half a state, typically in a rural area with few neighbors. It’s a prudent environmental strategy and it provides jobs for rural communities, which is why some of them have been competing to attract new landfills. But the availability of landfill space in the countryside has created an awkward situation for cities committed to more expensive alternatives like recycling programs and incinerators. Environmentalists have responded with a mythical imperative. . . .

We must achieve garbage independence. When Dittersdorf told the children that New York City was running out of landfill space, she was technically right. Mayor Giuliani and Governor Pataki have promised Staten Island that its municipal landfill will close in five years, and there’s no logical place in town to put a new one. But why should the city have to use a local landfill? Why assume that New Yorkers have a moral obligation to dispose of their garbage near home? Most of the stuff was shipped to the city from factories and farms elsewhere. What’s wrong with shipping it back out to be buried in places with open land?

“I don’t understand why anyone thinks New York City has a garbage crisis because it can’t handle all its own waste,” says James DeLong, an adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington. “With that kind of logic, you’d have to conclude that New York City has a food crisis because it can’t grow all the vegetables its people need within the city limits, so it should turn Central Park into a farm and ration New Yorkers’ consumption of vegetables to what they can grow there.” Some politicians in other states have threatened to stop the importing of New York’s garbage — it’s an easy way to appeal to some voters’ chauvinism — but in the unlikely event that they succeeded, they would only be depriving their own constituents of jobs and tax revenue.

We’re cursing future generations with our waste. Dittersdorf’s slide showing New Yorkers’ annual garbage output — 15 square blocks, 20 stories high — looked frightening because the trash was sitting, uncompressed, in the middle of the city. But consider a different perspective — a national, long-term perspective. A. Clark Wiseman, an economist at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., has calculated that if Americans keep generating garbage at current rates for 1,000 years, and if all their garbage is put in a landfill 100 yards deep, by the year 3000 this national garbage heap will fill a square piece of land 35 miles on each side.

This doesn’t seem a huge imposition in a country the size of America. The garbage would occupy only 5 percent of the area needed for the national array of solar panels proposed by environmentalists. The millennial landfill would fit on one-tenth of 1 percent of the range land now available for grazing in the continental United States. And if it still pains you to think of depriving posterity of that 35-mile square, remember that the loss will be only temporary. Eventually, like previous landfills, the mounds of trash will be covered with grass and become a minuscule addition to the nation’s 150,000 square miles of parkland.

We’re squandering irreplaceable natural resources. Yes, a lot of trees have been cut down to make today’s newspaper. But even more trees will probably be planted in their place. America’s supply of timber has been increasing for decades, and the nation’s forests have three times more wood today than in 1920. “We’re not running out of wood, so why do we worry so much about recycling paper?” asks Jerry Taylor, the director of natural resource studies at the Cato Institute. “Paper is an agricultural product, made from trees grown specifically for paper production. Acting to conserve trees by recycling paper is like acting to conserve cornstalks by cutting back on corn consumption.”

Some resources, of course, don’t grow back, and it may seem prudent to worry about depleting the earth’s finite stores of metals and fossil fuels. It certainly seemed so during the oil shortages of the 1970’s, when the modern recycling philosophy developed. But the oil scare was temporary, just like all previous scares about resource shortages. The costs of natural resources, both renewable and nonrenewable, have been declining for thousands of years. They’ve become less scarce over time because humans have continually found new supplies or devised new technologies. Fifty years ago, for instance, tin and copper were said to be in danger of depletion, and conservationists urged mandatory recycling and rationing of these vital metals so that future generations wouldn’t be deprived of food containers and telephone wires. But today tin and copper are cheaper than ever. Most food containers don’t use any tin. Phone calls travel through fiber-optic cables of glass, which is made from sand — and should the world ever run out of sand, we could dispense with wires altogether by using cellular phones.

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