Recycling is the Worst Thing to Happen to Our Environment

Okay, it's not the worst thing. But sometimes I think that the recycling movement has actually served at cross purposes to making significant environmental progress. Others (here, here, here) have opined that recycling itself may actually be bad, and I'll let those arguments stand or fall on their own merits. I take the viewpoint that even if it's environmentally good, the emphasis on it is bad.

When I talk to people and tell them what I do: that I'm an environmentalist, they undoubtedly cite the fact that they recycle as evidence that they are, too. Rarely do they come up with much else beyond that, but for most of them they seem to feel that is sufficient.

Yet recycling has a remarkably negligible overall effect. Even on the waste stream. Household waste represents well less than 2% of all the waste in the economy, so even if every household in the country recycled 100% of their waste, it would only reduce our solid waste stream by about 1%. 99% of the waste generated by our economy would still be thrown out. A great viewpoint on this can be found at The Story of Stuff.

The much bigger problems have to do with overall consumption and with our use of energy. That's where it really makes a difference. But unfortunately, the focus on recycling as the "environmental" behavior that really makes a difference has distracted most Americans from taking more significant actions. They feel good about their environmental performance based on their weekly recycling activities and completely ignore the fact that also in a week their vehicles have burned over 100 pounds of gasoline--ten times what they recycled--and emitted 300 pounds of CO2.


  1. I agree! And i love the "story of stuff"... I have just enough background in economics to question what exactly Obama's econ package is going to do. The reality is that our entire economy is like a pyramid scheme... at some point there just will not be any more "stuff" to buy... Is "spending" the answer to the problem?

  2. YES -- I am often agape at my neighbor's recycling bins overflowing with water bottles...sure, once you've bought it, recycle it, but clearly if you're buying cases of bottled water at a time you could be doing more to examine your consumption. Let alone other aspects of your footprint on the earth.