Another Look At The Religion Of Recycling

It’s time to be rational, not religious, about recycling. So writes Chris Reed.

Author Michael Crichton’s notion that environmentalism is “the religion of choice for urban atheists” is readily apparent to anyone who researches the fact-challenged crusades that environmentalists have launched over the last half-century.


…once the demonization starts, it doesn’t stop, no matter what science says. Famed atheist Richard Dawkins once wrote, “Religion is about turning untested belief into unshakable truth through the power of institutions and the passage of time.” This is what many environmentalists regularly seek to do.

This refusal to acknowledge contrary facts is now on display with recycling, which is facing a crisis in California because so many recycling centers are closing. Advocates who want Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature to increase payments to keep these centers in business — restoring the recycling status quo — typically rely not on facts from recycling’s mixed history but on moral exhortations.

Such persuasion is often very effective. The idea of recycling waste so materials can be used again seems a practical way to display virtuous behavior. It resonates with people because environmentalism, at least the objective version, is a great cause. Everyone should be aboard.

But if you want an example of how environmentalists skip objectivity and act like religious fundamentalists, recycling is near the top of the list. It is routinely depicted as an answer or the answer to climate change, pollution, both water and energy conservation, and more, and lauded for the jobs it creates and the money it saves. But there is a Grand Canyon-sized gap between what environmentalists say and what research based on hard evidence finds.

And therein lies the problem. While recycling sounds like it’s the end-all-and-be-all of environmentalism, the truth is that it tends to cost more than it saves and there isn’t as much of a market for some recycled materials as people believe there is. But that hasn’t stopped the faithful from insisting that there must be a market, even if the government must artificially create one. There are three materials that have seen a big drop-off in demand: plastics, paper, and glass. Metals are still in demand, though the prices are lower than they have been. So is corrugated cardboard.

But the facts haven’t dissuaded the faithful. They still want people, businesses, and government to waste time and money to recycle materials that have no value, no market. They want to force people to recycle even though it won’t make one bit of difference. That is a religious belief, the litany of their ideology. You will be made to believe even if the evidence says “It just ain’t so”.

Recycling makes sense when it’s cost effective to do so for materials being recycled. But if it costs more to recycle materials than to dispose of them and replace them with new materials, then there’s no economic reason to do so. While an environmental case might be made for doing so, it would have to be compelling and not just “because we say so”. The case for recycling has to meet a number of conditions before it becomes reasonable to do so, among them that it is cost effective and environmentally positive. Without those two elements recycling is less about the environment and more about dogma.

If recycling is more polluting, more damaging to the environment than disposal, then why recycle? (Some plastics cannot be recycled safely. Some are not cost effective to recycle.)

Glass has no market in some parts of the country because there is absolutely no demand. New glass is far cheaper than recycled glass, so why use recycled glass?

Paper is a problematic material. There is a surplus of recycled paper out there and not nearly enough demand for it. Some paper goods cannot be made from recycled paper because they won’t meet the requirements demanded by customers. Other types of paper like newsprint has seen demand plummet as there are fewer newspapers are out there these days and more of their content is being distributed online.

But that won’t stop the faithful from pushing their faith upon others.