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The following pages address the claims of a small but vocal chorus of antienvironmental interests who have tried to cast doubt on the value of recycling, perhaps the most widely practiced and most basic of all environmental policies. Over the years similar attacks have been launched against reports that confirmed industry's damage to the earth's biodiversity, as well as those revealing the threats posed by lead poisoning, ozone depletion, and greenhouse warming. Given the overwhelming support shown toward recycling policies over the past decade, it is understandable that until recently the conservative- and corporate-inspired backlash against recycling was hidden from most Americans, played out instead by lobbyists working obscure but important legislative committees and regulatory agencies. However, as the infrastructure for recycling has expanded over the past fifteen years, and as demands by citizens and state and local officials that consumer-products companies accommodate higher levels of recycling have intensified, backlash attacks against recycling have become more public. In general, recycling is opposed by: (1) conservative theorists; and (2) executives and trade group lobbyists working for extractive industries such as mining and timber, as well as those representing a few, large manufacturers of grocery products and plastics.

Revisionist critiques of recycling have been slow to emerge publicly in part because the documented economic and ecosystem benefits that recycling programs provide are substantial, and in part because recycling is no longer a marginal enterprise supported by a few active members of local environmental clubs. As the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported in September 1996, "There are 7,500 recycling programs [in the United States] compared to 1,000 in 1988, and the number continues to grow. Now about 120 million people, or 48 percent of the population, have access to curbside collection programs. Further, over 3,000 yard waste composting facilities complement the collection programs."[1] In fact, recycling is today a global phenomenon, a big business with diverse supporters, providing important benefits to millions of people worldwide. It is precisely the challenge to this widely shared experience that makes attacks on recycling so reckless.

Although popular concern about unchecked consumption and dangerous and wasteful disposal practices has helped recycling to flourish in the United States since the early 1980s, it is still far from being solidly established national industrial policy. Of the twenty most industrially advanced democracies in the world, the United States ranks fifteenth in paper recycling and nineteenth (behind Mexico) in glass recycling.[2] According to the Congressional Research Service, "Other countries use less packaging than the United States, recycle more of it, and are considering [recycling] policy measures stronger than measures generally being considered in America."[3] This, despite the fact that on a per capita basis, as well as in absolute amounts, the United States is far and away the largest generator of wastes of any nation on earth. The United States also maintains the highest per capita use of water and the highest per capita use of energy; in addition, it contributes the highest global percentage of air pollution from both stationary and mobile sources.[4]

Recycling can help lessen some of these environmental burdens and the economic costs they engender. Both "upstream" (in the manufacturing process) and "downstream" (in the waste disposal process), recycling provides meaningful benefits. As this report will make clear, few public policies provide as many advantages as does recycling:

  • Recycling conserves natural resources, such as timber, water, and mineral ores, from domestic and imported sources.
  • Recycling prevents pollution caused by manufacturing from virgin resources.
  • Recycling saves energy.
  • Recycling reduces the need for landfilling and incineration and helps avoid the pollution produced by these technologies.
  • Recycling helps protect and expand manufacturing jobs in America.
  • Recycling engenders a sense of community involvement and responsibility.

The environmental and economic benefits of recycling have been broadly analyzed.[5] Few analysts dispute that recycling can help reduce global and local environmental burdens as well as the costs of administering, collecting, processing, and transporting garbage to landfills and incinerators. It is the only solid waste management strategy that offers the potential to generate revenue in government's otherwise losing proposition of collecting and disposing of municipal waste. Of course, as a raw-material commodities business, recycling markets cannot guarantee profits. No market does. Still, recycling industries now encompass billions of dollars in competitive investments and infrastructure worldwide. Yet whatever the financial risks of recycling, these in no way negate its environmental benefits.

Though recycling draws its direction primarily from science and empirical economics, it is grounded as well in a philosophical belief that people throughout the world are interdependent, however isolated they may feel. Teaching children the value of recycling, as tens of thousands of parents and schools do each year, is not, as has been alleged, a merely sentimental gesture; rather, it helps cultivate an important awareness of one's relationship to others and responsibilities to them. Recycling confirms that people can do what is efficient and still do what is right, though it may mean minor adjustments in the way they collect and throw out garbage or choose to shop for everyday needs.

Recently, attacks on the philosophical premise and environmental value of recycling have gained visibility, challenging Americans to rethink their commitment to this highly popular environmental policy. These attacks have emerged from antigovernment and conservative organizations such as the Reason Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the National Center for Policy Analysis. These groups, which advocate the elimination of many, if not most environmental and public-health regulations, have a severe view of local recycling ordinances, characterizing them as "the equivalent of Soviet planning"[6] or "east European five-year plans" that burden Americans with "forced labor" and childhood "indoctrination."[7] These disturbingly overstated characterizations show just how far some of these groups will go to promote ideology over reality. They also dismiss Americans' vigorous support of recycling. For two decades public-opinion polls have routinely found that more than seven out of ten Americans view recycling as an important solution to some of the planet's environmental problems,[8] but opponents of recycling attribute this support to "bizarre╔misconceptions and mistaken assumptions that snowballed into a national myth."[9]

Certainly the most prominent, if not controversial, attack on the nation's growing commitment to recycling was published as a lengthy cover story, "Recycling Is Garbage," in the New York Times Magazine on June 30, 1996. (The article is reprinted as Appendix A.) In it, John Tierney, a staff writer for the magazine, argued that most recycling efforts are economically unsound and of questionable environmental value. Billions of dollars in profitable and ecologically productive investments in recycling have conserved millions of tons of resources, reduced pollution, saved energy, and produced tens of thousands of jobs. Yet Tierney described recycling as perhaps "the most wasteful activity in modern America." How could this be? The Times Magazine article was a challenge to all Americans committed to environmental protection. In fact, in the last thirty years, hundreds of volumes of text and data have documented the value and logic of recycling to industry and government alike. But "Recycling Is Garbage," which was replete with half-truths, stretched far to excerpt out-of-context or incomplete "facts" here and there from previously published reports issued by the Reason Foundation, a West Coast antigovernment group, as well as corporate PR firms and consultants, and other interests ideologically or financially opposed to recycling. In so doing, Tierney constructed a manifesto against all the good documented benefits recycling provides. The article sought to turn recycling, and the values that underlie it, on its head. Although recycling efforts have proliferated in response to concerns about the global damage caused by wasteful consumption, "Recycling Is Garbage" referred to recycling as "the most primitive form of materialism: the worship of materials."[10]

Had Tierney's tract been treated as just another antienvironmental voice among others, it would have gone largely unnoticed, as happened to the few similar attacks on recycling that came before it. But a cover story in the Times Magazine gets attention, and in this case it had important policy consequences. Excerpts of the article or echoes of its antirecycling theme were reprinted in more than two dozen major papers nationwide, and two days after the article's publication, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani denounced the city's recycling ordinance as "absurd" and "irresponsible," indicated his intention to ignore it, and supported his position by citing "an article in the New York Times Magazine...that called recycling a waste of time and money and suggested that the national drive to increase recycling was prompted by an irrational fear that available landfill space was rapidly disappearing."[11] Not surprisingly, conservative theorists and officials at virgin resources-based industries threatened by recycling would like other government officials to believe the public has indeed turned its back on recycling. As the executive director of the Vinyl Plastics Institute claimed, "the New York Times article was a picture in time accurately reflecting society."[12]

The Natural Resources Defense Council doesn't agree. This document is NRDC's response to the small but potentially influential group of antirecycling voices attempting to disrupt environmental progress. As the text that follows makes clear, and as many Americans seem to understand intuitively, antirecycling diatribes routinely distort the facts relating to recycling. Obviously, not all the materials found in the municipal waste stream can be recycled, nor can all consumer products be made from recycled materials. But the United States is far from those practical limits. A much higher percentage of materials now discarded in the U.S. waste stream can be recycled, and the environment would certainly benefit if many of the products now made from virgin resources were manufactured from recycled resources instead. Virtually every issue put forth by those who take the antirecycling position has been subjected to thorough review and debate, producing volumes of research. Rarely do the facts support the antirecycling stance.

Those who argue that recycling has been oversold to the American public try to hit at the heart of recycling's environmental and economic value. Their arguments express four general concerns, none of which are accurate:

  • Recycling is itself a complex industrial process that consumes more resources than it saves, causes pollution, and doesn't really save trees, energy, or other natural resources.
  • Landfill space is available, convenient and, unlike earlier dump sites, today's landfills pose no environmental problems.
  • Recycling is more expensive than landfilling.
  • Government mandates requiring recycling, and subsidies offered in behalf of recycling are costly and distort free-market objectives and efficiencies.

This report refutes all of these arguments.

Undoubtedly, recycling will withstand this latest assault on common sense, good science, and sound economics. Like any good idea, especially one that threatens the world view of entrenched profit-making interests or requires some adjustment in bureaucratic processes, recycling is an uphill battle. But it is one that mainstream America, whose commitment to environmental progress is well documented, is winning. Perhaps no other idea emerging out of the environmental movement has been so successful in garnering popular support and motivating the behavior of so many people throughout the world. This report is a brief attempt to confirm why this is so.


1. "Sustainability and Recycling: A New Vision for the Future," Michael Shapiro, Director, Office of Solid Waste, U.S. EPA (paper presented at National Recycling Coalition conference, September 19, 1996, Pittsburgh, Pa.)

2. OECD Environmental Data: Compendium 1995 (Paris: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 1995), at p. 171. These rankings indicate recovery as a percentage of total discards for each commodity.

3. Congressional Research Service Report for Congress: Recycling and Reducing Packaging Waste: How The United States Compares to Other Countries, J.E. McCarthy (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, 1991) at p. 2.

4. OECD Environmental Data: Compendium 1995, throughout; and Environmental Performance Reviews: United States, (Paris: Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, 1996), at pp. 75, 254-257.

5. See Recycling and Incineration: Evaluating the Choices, Richard A. Denison and John Ruston, eds. (Washington, D.C: Island Press, 1990); "Environmental Lifecycle Comparisons of Recycling, Landfilling and Incineration: A Review of Recent Studies," R.A. Denison, Annual Review of Energy and the Environment, Volume 21(Palo Alto, CA: Annual Reviews, Inc.; and Why Do We Recycle? Markets, Values and Public Policy, Frank Ackerman (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1997).

6. Wasting Resources to Reduce Waste: Recycling in New Jersey, Grant W. Schaumburg, Jr., and Katherine T. Doyle; (Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, January 26, 1994) Policy Analysis No. 202, at p. 20. (Hereafter referred to as Cato Institute report.)

7. John Tierney, "Recycling Is Garbage," New York Times Magazine, June 30, 1996, at pp. 24 and 26. (Hereafter referred to as Tierney.)

8. See, for examples, "Public Attitudes Towards Garbage Disposal" the National Solid Waste Management Association, Washington, D.C: 1988; "Shades of Green: Eight of 10 Americans are Environmentalists," Wall Street Journal, August 2, 1991 at p. 1; and "Waste of a Sort," Wall Street Journal, January 19, 1995 at p. 1.

9. "Waste of a Sort," Wall Street Journal, January 19, 1995 at p. 1.

10. Tierney, at p. 53.

11. New York Times, July 3, 1996, at p. 1

12. Quoted in Plastics News, September 30, 1996 at p. 6.

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