Recycling: Are Penn & Teller right?

So I just watched the most recent episode of Penn & Teller’s Bullshit which is about recycling. Let me see if I can summarize some the basic points.

Recycling is bad because:

[li]Most recycling programs cost way more money than they generate, and the shortfall comes out of tax dollars.[/li][li]Recylcing processes generate more pollution and harm to the environment than if the materials had been left as simple garbage.[/li][/ol]


[li]The ‘needs’ for recycling - i.e. saving trees and reducing landfill space - are predicated on myths.[/li][li]A lot of the carefully seperated materials end up in the same landfill spaces anyway.[/li][/list]

Now, I’ve felt for years that recycling is not cost effective, and that recycling programs should be put on hold or at least slowed down until such time as industry finds a profitable way of doing it. I just don’t think my taxes should pay for it.

But is all the other stuff true? Are we actually harming the environment when we bleach paper for recycling? When we re-melt plastic are we actually driving up the costs of consumer goods? Do we really have more trees now than we did in 1920? P&T ceretainly SOUND like they know what they’re talking about, but what’s the straight dope here?


It’s all bull… (well you know what).

P&T have a clear political agenda and like to promote themselves. Give them a TV show to air their views and that’s what you get. Their views. It’s not based on facts or data or anything.

I got paid $3.40 last week for my Al cans. I didn’t pay anyone to take them away like the rest of my garbage. The recycling center isn’t giving out money in order to just turn around and throw the cans out. A company buys the cans from them and they are re-used.

There’s a huge metal recycling yard near me. If you have a truck load of refrigerators, they’ll pay you money. Ditto brass and copper. They also pay for Al cans but not as well as the recycling center. Metal recycling is a big business in the US (and elsewhere).

Chinese companies have been buying up all the recycled newspapers they can find and shipping it to China. The American companies that used the newspapers for cardboard and such are very ticked off. They are running at low capacity or have to pay high costs for recycled newspapers. (Think about it: The Chinese are making money buying used American newspapers and shipping it to China. Wow.)

Some items in some areas aren’t yet to the “tipping point”, but the more people recycle, the sooner you get to that point. So it isn’t 100% good news for recycling, but it’s a lot closer to 100% than 0%.

The master speaks.

Well, it’s funny that you should mention aluminum cans as your exmaple, because P&T said that’s only type of recycling that “works” - i.e. the value of the aluminum exceeds the value of say, recycled plastic milk jugs and therefore it’s cost-effective.

I like P&T’s show, but I can see how people can react against it. I have always felt that recycling is a waste - this show “proved” it to me. Someone that’s vehemently for recycling can watch this and see nothing but playing with statistics or “selective interviewing” or “selective editing”.

Well, a person I know who works in recycling here in Austin says that their program was self-sufficient and even (sometimes) profitable, as long as they were collecting only aluminum, glass and newspapers. However, as soon as they were required to start collecting plastic, they started hemorrhaging money.

Plastic takes up a lot of space, it requires a lot of manpower to collect, and there’s practically no resale market for it. So, recycling plastic is an expensive and wasteful effort. Worse, it may very well encourage consumers to buy more plastic containers, under the misguided notion that, since these containers are recyclable, they’re environmentally friendly!

Unfortunately the EPA and environmental groups also have clear political agendas and aren’t afraid of misrepresenting facts or lying. Remember the 80’s when we were on the verge of running out of landfill space?

So far as I know scrap metal has always been recycled in the United States because there is money to be made. Newspaper is suppose to be profitable to recycle but what about a lot of plastics?

One way or the other we’ve got to remove our waste lest we wallow in our own crapulence. When a municipality sets up a recycling system does it lower the cost of garbage disposal or does the recycling increase the cost of garbage disposal?


Well, IAASWP (I Am A Solid Waste Professional), and here are my admittedly biased thoughts on the points you bring up - I did watch bits and pieces of the show, but just didn’t have the energy for the yelling at the TV watching the wole thing would have required. Yes, Rex, I did see it as selective interviewing - the anti recycling information came mainly from one person, and they used people who I would definitely call kooky to illustrate their points (a bin for used toilet paper? Come on!)

Some recycling programs cost more money than they generate, quite true. That is because the profitability of recycling is completely based on markets - and these markets go up and down all the time. If you could only collect those materials with a high market value, recycling programs would always be profitable. However, recycling is a habit for most people; if you constantly change what materials are accepted in a recycling program, those habits are going to get broken and people are going to say “to heck with it.”

[pet peeve mode] No one expects trash service to pay for itself … [/pet peeve mode]

**Recycling processes can cause pollution ** and I believe that was the case for paper recycling many years ago (made more pollution than making paper from virgin fiber). The paper industry has made serious changes in their recycling processes since then, and I believe that’s the case in most recycling operations. It’s hard to argue that making new aluminum by melting down old aluminum produces more pollution that mining the bauxite ore and extracting the alumina before melting into new aluminum. I’m not at work (silly government internet use rules) so if you’d like a cite for that I’ll have to get back to you.

There is not a shortage of space for landfills, but it’s not as simple as finding an open space to put your trash. Admittedly, the “garbage crisis” was what got a lot of folks into recycling in the late 80s / early 90s, as older landfills were closing and the garbage barge The Dobro was sailing around from port to port. That crisis has not come to pass - newer landfills are bigger that the old ones were, so fewer landfills does not equal less landfill space.

Landfills are hard to site (hard to find an appropriate place, lots of neighbor opposition) and expensive to build (liners, leachate collection systems, ground water monitoring wells, etc.). Landfill owners have to maintain financial responsibility for 30 years after landfill closure, in case of any leaks or other problems. After 30 years, it’ll probably become the government’s responsibility to clean up. The regulations for municipal solid waste landfills haven’t been around for 30 years yet, so we don’t know what will happen to the liners in the long term.

As far as saving resources, I submit the following for your perusal (not that I claim these are completely unbiased sites, but they are funded by the material trade associations)
American Forest and Paper Association, the national trade association of the forest, pulp, paper, paperboard and wood products industry. Click on the “Environment and Recycling” tab at the top.

The Steel Recycling Institute, a unit of the American Iron and Steel Institute.

The Aluminum Association, the aluminum industry’s trade association.

Each trade association seems to feel that recycled feedstocks are important to their manufacturing processes … all steel mills, for instance, require a certain percentage of recycled feedstock in order to manufacture new steel. AF&PA’s website talks about a fiber shortage that is met through recycling.

Plastics are an exception, I grant you - they are made from byproducts of the petroleum fuel industry, so it’s not like you’re saving petroleum by recycling them. However, you are putting fewer things in the landfill, and new products like decking materials and fleece clothing can be made from them.

Materials that are collected in recycling programs can end up in the landfill anyway, if people don’t follow the rules of the program. There comes a point where it isn’t worth it for the recycler to sort out the trash from the recyclables that were put in recycling bins, and the whole load gets trashed. However, if everyone pays attention to what CAN and CANNOT be recycled in their local recycling programs, the materials will actually be recycled. I refer you to the websites above and their discussions of how many tons of materials were recycled over the past few years.

**Winkie’s public service announcement ** - practice source reduction first, by purchasing only what you need, minimizing the amount of packaging you buy and using durable goods instead of disposables. You’ll save money and resources, and make less trash.

A quick note to astorian on preview - as a lightweight alternative to glass packaging, plastic is indeed more environmentally friendly. A number of years ago, a Tellus Institute study found that the lightest-weight packing is, in most cases, the best for the environment. It has to do with the amount of fuel required to transport the product and packaging, which when combined with the pollution produced by burning that fuel turns out to be the biggest environmental impact. It is, unfortunately, not so swell for recycling programs. Here in Indiana, though, market prices for recycled plastic are starting to rise.

Heh. P&T had the guy that wrote the “we’re running out of landfill space!” report back in the 80s and he himself said that landfilling garbage costs $70/ton and that recycling costs $150/ton. Not sure that those figures are 100% accurate (that is, from my memory, not if the guy was being honest), but they’re definitely in the ballpark…

To correct the original poster:
Penn and Teller said the only proven profitable recycling is aluminum cans. :smiley:

Even though I am a long-time fan of P&T (I knew them when they were performing separately at Renaissance fairs, and have seen them live dozens of times) I was really annoyed at that episode. First of all, the wraps really came off their Libertarian views (taxes are taken from us by force, the government’s jack booted thugs will put us in the slammer if we don’t go along with recycling programs, blah, blah, blah), which in this case were particularly obnoxious. It seemed to me that they were far more unfair in their treatment of the environmentalists than they have been with any of their other targets, to the point of saying all these people are in it just to exercise power over other people. It’s an idiotic and insidious argument.

As pointed out by other posters, the fact that recycling doesn’t make money is a bizarre argument. Do sewer systems, or storm drains, or roads, or any number of other infrastructure systems turn a profit? Of course not. Why apply this standard to recycling all of a sudden?

They also went to one of the best, most advanced landfills in the country to make the case that there’s no problem with landfilling all waste, disregarding the fact that in many communities poorly constructed or maintained landfills are creating serious environmental problems. Reducing the load in those landfills through recycling is a good thing.

Maybe it’s just a case of my ox being gored here, but I was really disappointed and angry at this show. Go back to exposing homeopaths, mediums, dowsers, and the like, boys.

Wow, some great arguments here. Special props to Winkie for the informed view of the professional. I posted this last night and wondered if anyone would have anything to say on the subject… :slight_smile:

I guess I phrased my original post badly, as far as cost-effectiveness is concerned. It’s not that I expect recycling to be profitable, just that I object to the fact that it costs so much more than traditional trash disposal methods.

As has been mentioned elsewhere in this thread, aluminum cans are the exception. If plastics could be cost-effectively recycled the way soda cans are, we’d be taking some long steps in a good direction. But they can’t, and we’re blowing money. So why do it?

Anybody know about the tree count thing? Do pulp-and-paper tree farms really plant more trees than the lumber industry and urban development have cut down in the last 80 years? And if so, do the trees on the farms really perform the same benificial role in the environment as their more natural counterparts?


Or, to put it another way…

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. :slight_smile:

Remember that that little slogan goes in priority order.

There seems to be have been a change in mindset over the last 5-10 years regarding recycled materials. Back in the early '90s, people were being encouraged to purchase recycled products that were both inferior and more expensive than non-recycled versions, such as notebooks. This is a prescription for failure. Plus, it was bad PR for recycling! Now, recycled materials are more likely to be used in places where they are not detrimental to the quality of the product, such as in paperboard boxes. Not only does this avoid the consumer saying “gee, recycled products are lousy,” but it allows more environmentally friendly recycled products. I don’t know about paperboard in particular, but I imagine that coated paperboard doesn’t need to be bleached like writitng paper would have to be.

Also, since recycling wasn’t a complete success, there has been even more of an impetus toward more environmentally friendly virgin products and packaging. More and more tree-free papers are being developed. Plastic packaging is being designed more intelligently. For example, Ocean Spray cranberry juice now comes in squarish bottles. Therefore, a case of cranberry juice will take up less space–leading to smaller cartons, less warehouse space, less space on the truck, less space on the grocery shelf, etc.

And even though plastic recycling isn’t a huge success, I understand that some plastics are much more recyclable than others. As far as I know, plastics marked with #1 and #2 are the most recyclable. Like soda bottles. I’ve noticed that more manufacturers are using these plastics for their products. Squeeze bottles used to be the less-recyclable #5 plastic. Now, lots of squeeze bottles are #1 or #2. The huge variety of types of plastic is one factor that make it hard to do plastic recycling, so making more stuff out of one or two types will make those types more feasible to recycle.

The big unexploited opportunity for reducing our waste stream is composting. A lot of progress has been made as far as yard waste, as some posters upthread have noticed. But we could reduce the waste stream so much further if we could get people composting!

That’s an excellent summary of my feelings on P&T and this show in particular, also.

I don’t know a whole lot about the economics of recycling, but even I could tell one thing: It’s too complicated a subject to cover in satisfactory depth or detail in a 30 minute show. Definitely the least convincing (and least amusing) of their shows I’ve seen.

And I say this as someone who doesn’t even recycle.

But surely this also means the bottle itself requires more plastic for a given capacity than a round bottle would. Sounds like a tradeoff to me.

Why? What’s the deal with trees? I hate to quote P&T in a thread about them, but trees are a natural resource. There’s no “tree shortage” just as there’s no “potato shortage”. We can grow more trees any time we want to. In fact, we have to. The paper companies aren’t just sitting around cutting down trees willy-nilly and not thinking about tomorrow and planting new ones. I don’t know much about paper production, but I can’t see that an “old-growth” tree would make a better piece of paper than a “new-growth” tree. Can someone break this down for me??

No it’s not. That’s how I see it.

Around here they used to use the recycled paper for animal bedding. (not use if they do anymore) Even if paper is only used twice, thats reducing the need for paper. (minimal processing required)

The trees uses in paper are typcally fast growing softwoods, and yes, paper companies grow a lot of trees. Think of it as any other crop (except it takes a few years to grow).

These forests are fairly “sterile”, all the tress are the same species, the same age, and are planted in neat rows. Some species may like it, but hardly the same as a real forest™


Composting! I agree that we could make huge strides in composting, and I love my city for making yard waste bins available. I have my own heap, but what I can’t put in there can go to the city’s compost project. They even sell the stuff, IIRC.

FWIW, the forest scenes in the movie Last of the Mohicans was filmed in a Weyerhouser tree plantation. Not quite the Forest Primeval, but a reasonable stand-in.

How long has the Straight Dope been fighting ignorance? Maybe you should rethink your views on other peoples’ motives. I don’t know of any American liberal who takes a position “just to exercise power over other people.” It’s ridiculous to ascribe such a motive to such a large proportion of the public. And ultimately it poisons the political discussion. If your starting position is that the rest of us are all malicious assholes, then nothing we say counts so far as you’re concerned. Isn’t the whole point of the Straight Dope is that we are reasonable people who are concerned with learning the truth?

I am a liberal and I am generally in favour of recycling, because I believe that it’s doing something good, whether saving the earth from deforestation, saving the air, water, and land from pollution, reducing the rate of consumption of unrenewable resources, or saving natural spaces from becoming garbage dumps.

Should any or all of these things prove to be untrue, then I, as a liberal and an environmentalist am perfectly willing to rethink my views on recycling. Indeed, the Penn and Teller program did just that. If what P&T are saying is true, I think we need to re-evaluate our recycling programs. Thus the question the OP asks is, I think, a very important one for all of us, including those of us who have been in favor of recycling.

Yes, but you can pack more volume of material onto a truck with square bottles, and so you are paying (and consuming fuel etc) to ship a lot less air. IOW, 4 cylindrical juice bottles in a crate produce a lot more dead space than 4 square bottles tightly packed. Depending on the form factor, one or the other may require more material, but costs of distribution will often dominate material costs anyway.