Recycling Myths: Smothered in Garbage vs. More Landfill Capacity than Ever

Kids Sort Trash
Lessons start early in life
all recycling is good…

Editor’s note: Recycling is not always the environmentally correct choice. Many items we recycle come from abundant raw materials and are inert and harmless when dumped. It costs more to recycle these than to bury the used and manufacture the new from scratch. Glass is a perfect example; plastic runs a close second. If throwing away glass and plastic causes us to ever run out of sand and oil byproducts we can mine the landfills and recycle them all at once – it would be cheaper and easier than perpetual recycling. There’s plenty of land for landfills, there’s very little hazard remaining in modern landfills, and the economics and the environment often favor using them. Trillions are squandered on needless recycling. So what myths prevent change?

Governments across the European Union and America have announced plans to require more recycling.


The European Union has ordered the citizens of the United Kingdom to roughly double their recycling rates by 2008, while the city governments of New York and Seattle have proposed mandatory expansions of existing recycling programs.

These moves are not based on new developments in resource conservation; instead they – like other mandatory recycling programs – rest on misconceptions of mythic proportions. This article discusses the most egregious of these myths.

MYTH 1: OUR GARBAGE WILL BURY US

Rolling Hillside
All of America’s garbage for the next century could
fit in just one landfill, only about 10 miles square

Since the 1980s, people repeatedly have claimed that the United States faces a landfill crisis. Former Vice President Al gore, for example, asserted we are “running out of ways to dispose of our waste in a manner that keeps it out of either sight or mind.”

This claim originated in the 1980s, when the waste disposal industry moved to using fewer but much larger landfills. The Environmental Protection Agency, the press, and other commentators focused on the falling number of landfills, rather than on their growing overall capacity, and concluded that we were running out of space. The EPA also underestimated the prospects for creating additional capacity.

In fact, the United States today has more landfill capacity than ever before. In 2001, the nation’s landfills could accommodate 18 years’ worth of rubbish, an amount 25% greater than a decade before. To be sure, there are a few places where capacity has shrunk. But the uneven distribution of available landfill space is no more important than is the uneven distribution of auto manufacturing: Trash is an interstate business, with 47 states exporting the stuff and 45 importing it. Indeed, the total land area needed to hold all of America’s garbage for the next century would be only about 10 miles square.

MYTH 2: OUR GARBAGE WILL POISON US

The claim that our trash might poison us is impossible to completely refute, because almost anything might pose a threat. But the EPA itself acknowledges that the risks to humans (and presumably plants and animals) from modern landfills are virtually nonexistent: According to the EPA’s own estimates, modern landfills can be expected to cause 5.7 cancer-related deaths over the next 300 years – just one death every 50 years. To put this in perspective, cancer kills over 560,000 people every year in the United States.

Older landfills do possess a potential for harm to the ecosystem and to humans, especially when built on wetlands or swamps, because pollutants can leach from them. When located on dry land, however, even old-style landfills generally pose minimal danger, in part because remarkably little biodegradation takes place in them.

Modern landfills eliminate essentially any potential for problems. Siting occurs away from groundwater supplies, and the landfills are built on a foundation of several feet of dense clay, covered with thick plastic liners. This layer is covered by several feet of gravel or sand. Any leachate is drained out via collection pipes and sent to municipal wastewater plants for treatment. Methane gas produced by biodegradation is drawn off by wells on site and burned or purified and sold.

MYTH 3: PACKAGING IS THE PROBLEM

RECYCLING RATES – USA 2000
United States Recycling Rates
Cardboard is recycled at three times the rate for glass;
the worth of glass recycling is debatable.

Contrary to current wisdom, packaging can reduce total rubbish produced. The average household in the united States generates one-third less trash each year than does the average household in Mexico, partly because packaging reduces breakage and food waste. Turning a live chicken into a meal creates food waste. When chickens are processed commercially, the waste goes into marketable products (such as pet food), instead of into a landfill. Commercial processing of 1,000 chickens requires about 17 pounds of packaging, but it also recycles at least 2,000 pounds of by-products.

The gains from packaging have been growing over time, because companies have been reducing the weight of the packages they use. During the late 1970s and 1980s, although the number of packages entering landfills rose substantially, the total weight of those discards declined by 40 percent. Over the past 25 years the weights of individual packages have been reduced by amounts ranging from 30 percent (2-liter soft drink bottles) to 70 percent (plastic grocery sacks and trash bags). Even aluminum beverage cans weigh 40 percent less than they used to.

MYTH 4: WE MUST ACHIEVE “TRASH INDEPENDENCE”

Numerous commentators contend that each state should achieve “trash independence” by disposing within its borders all of its rubbish. But, as with all voluntary trade, interstate trade in trash raises our wealth as a nation, perhaps by as much as $4 billion. Most of the increased wealth accrues to the citizens of areas importing trash.

Not only is the potential threat posed by modern landfills negligible, but transporting rubbish across state lines has no effect on the environmental impact of its disposal. Moving a ton of trash by truck is no more hazardous than moving a ton of any other commodity.

MYTH 5: WE SQUANDER IRREPLACEABLE RESOURCES WHEN WE DON’T RECYCLE

In fact, available stocks of most natural resources are growing rather than shrinking, but the reason is not recycling. Market prices are the best measure of natural resource scarcity. Rising prices imply that a resources is getting more scarce. Falling prices imply that it is becoming more plentiful. Applying this measure to oil, we find that over the past 125 years, oil has become no more scarce, despite our growing use of it. Reserves of other fossil fuels as well as other natural resources are also growing.

Thanks to innovation, we now produce about twice as much output per unit of energy as we did 50 years ago and five times as much as we did 200 years ago. Optical fiber carries 625 times more calls than the copper wire of 20 years ago, bridges are built with less steel, and automobile and truck engines consume less fuel per unit of work performed. The list goes on and on. Human innovation continues to increase the amount of resources at our command.

MYTH 6: RECYCLING ALWAYS PROTECTS THE ENVIRONMENT

United States Environmental Protection Agecny Logo

Recycling is a manufacturing process with environmental impacts. Viewed across a wide spectrum of goods, recycling sometimes cuts pollution, but not always. The EPA has examined both virgin paper processing and recycled paper processing for toxic substances and found that toxins often are more prevalent in the recycling process.

Often the pollution associated with recycling shows up in unexpected ways. Curbside recycling, for example, requires that more trucks be used to collect the same amount of waste materials. Thus, Los Angeles has 800 rubbish trucks rather than 400, because of its curb-side recycling. This means more iron ore and coal mining, steel and rubber manufacturing, petroleum extraction and refining – and of course extra air pollution in the Los Angeles basin.

MYTH 7: RECYCLING SAVES RESOURCES

It is widely claimed that recycling “saves resources.” Proponants usually focus on savings of a specific resource, or they single out particularly successful examples such as the recycling of aluminum cans.

But using less of one resource generally means using more of other resources. Franklin Associates, a firm that consults on behalf of the EPA, has compared the costs per ton of handling rubbish through three methods: disposal into landfills (but with a voluntary drop-off or buy-back program, and an extensive curbside recycling program.

On average, extensive recycling is 35 percent more costly than conventional disposal, and basic curbside recycling is 55 percent more costly than conventional disposal. That is, curbside recycling uses far more resources. As one expert puts it, adding curbside recycling is “like moving from once-a-week garbage collection to twice a week.”

Book Cover

MYTH 8: WITHOUT FORCED RECYCLING MANDATES, THERE WOULDN’T BE RECYCLING

This view reflects ignorance about the extent of recycling in the private sector, which is as old as trash itself. Scavenging may, in fact, be the oldest profession. In the 19th century, people bid for the right to scavenge New York City’s rubbish, and Winslow Homer’s 1859 etching, Scene on the Back Bay Lands, reveals adults and children digging through the detritus of the Boston city dump. Rag dealers were a constant of American life until driven out of business by the federal Wool Products Labeling Act of 1939, which stigmatized products made of recycled wool and cotton. And long before state or local governments had even contemplated the word recycling, makers of steel, aluminum, and many other products were recycling manufacturing scraps, and some were even operating post-consumer drop-off centers.

Recycling is a long-practiced, productive, indeed essential, element of the market system. Informed, voluntary recycling conserves resources and raises our wealth. In sharp contrast, misleading educational programs encourage the waste of resources when they overstate the benefits of recycling. And mandatory recycling programs, in which people are compelled to do what they know is not sensible, routinely make society worse off. Market prices are sufficient to induce the trashman to come, and to make his burden bearable, and neither he no we can hope for any better than that.

PERC Logo

Daniel K. Benjamin is professor of economics at Clemson University, a senior associate of the Political Economy Research Center (PERC), and a regular PERC columnist. This essay is adated from a longer paper, “Eight Great Myths of Recycling,” which is available from PERC.

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31 Responses to “Recycling Myths: Smothered in Garbage vs. More Landfill Capacity than Ever”
  1. Andrew says:

    I think this article is well established and filled with a wealth of valuable information. However many of the ideas conflict the staments of other articles/websites so we (the uninformed recyclers) cant be sure what to believe anymore.

  2. Pat says:

    It is so hard to discern truth in all this. It seems illogical that it is better to dump reusable materials into landfills and let them sit there forever rather than recycle what we can. Who are we to believe? This is very confusing!

  3. Alan says:

    I really cannot see any point to recycling. There is lots of space in the landfills and the stuff we recycle is very cheap to produce so what is the point?

  4. Janice says:

    Many natural resources do not “grow” in any meaningful way, such as sand or oil. The amount of time necessary to create new oil reserves is beyond any useful period for our consumption.

    Plastics, nitrogen fertilizers and so many other products are petroleum-based. Maybe we can come up with plastics made from renewable resources. Until then we are using up a precious resource.

    Why do you think it’s okay to put our non-compostibles into the earth anyway? What a contemptable attitude towards the earth that sustains us.

    Everything we make comes from natural resources. Sustainability is the only model that makes sense. Everything we make should be re-tooled to be reusable . This is the proper role for technology. This is true “harmony.”

  5. Julio says:

    Alan, I can see that you are happily ignorant and oblivious to the environmental concerns in the world you live in.

    And…
    As for you Jancie…

    Do you drive a car?
    I think so!
    Well what goes into your car???
    GAS! OIL! People!
    Do you want all those to go away! If you think it is meaningless then start walking to work or school or whereever you go to cause without that stuff you will have to!!!!

    Thank you!!

  6. Evan says:

    Uh … attribution?

  7. John Sadowski says:


    “Why do you think it’s okay to put our non-compostibles into the earth anyway? What a contemptable attitude towards the earth that sustains us.”

    The earth is full of non-compostibles. Everything we throw into a landfill came from the earth to start with. We don’t create anything, we just reform and relocate it. I will get my non-compostible plastic bag out of the landfill when Mother Nature gets her non-compostible rocks out of my garden.

    See my point? While pollution is a different matter, any non-toxic items that I though in the landfill are fine there. So they take 50,000 years to decompose? So what? It takes up a little room at the landfill, but all those materials were here on this earth to begin with – I jsut relocated them there….

  8. Veronica says:

    You are a big jerk if you don’t recycle!

  9. Jefe says:

    Great job, Veronica. Typical liberal point of view. If someone has a different point of view or doesn’t believe the media hook, line and sinker, then this person is a “jerk.” Why did we allow our gene pool to become so polluted?

    Now you can fire back with an anti-Republican rant, but I’m not Republican. Just a well-informed, self thinker.

  10. realthor says:

    While there would not be any problem throwing into landfills inert materials (in our real world hardly any material we produce can be called inert) the energy they consume to be extracted and manufactured will all be lost. There needs to be a certain amount of energy to recycle those materials but you don’t need to extract them from soil and all the stuff. It takes less energy to recycle than to make again.
    Second point is that almost all materials leach toxic chemicals that ultimately get into the drinking water, fish and so on. Perhaps plastic can be inert but is made with toxic catalysts that leach out. Read the scientific research on leaching toxic chemicals. Almost any man-made material leaches. That’s not good for the environment. And the fact that producing another good is cheap enough is not a point. It’s mostly cheap because much of it price is paid by someone else (environment). You’re paying just a fraction of it. And it’s also cheap because of mass manufacturing, which is a perpetual state of satisfying demand as more gets into the landfills and needs to be replaced.

    Point is that deniers exist all over and this sort of misinformation is simply repugnant.

  11. J.J. says:

    Mm… People have different views. I for one will keep recycling until I am sure recycling is worse than dumping them in landfills.
    … Someone with different views is not a jerk Veronica. They might actually be right.
    …… Gas and Oil hurts enviroment Julio. And yet, we can’t live without them.

    oh no… I’m confused now on what to do. Root for recycling or live with landfills.
    Personally, I’d like to reduce landfills though, more space that way.

  12. Great says:

    I think on this site there are more or less only stupid selfish americans, that really have no sense of earth, living, space and other stuff. Couse you all see just your artificial needs and would die if those not satisfied. Don’t care about resources, air etc….the only thing that matters is keep “the new stuff” up your fat asses and useless things on your fat bodies. Just as long as they look new and bright shiny…. Noob americans.

  13. Rich says:

    ‘Great’, before insulting an entire race of people for their supposed ignorance, I would at least check my spelling and sentence structure. Unfortunately, the only thing you showed there was your own ignorance.

    I don’t think that the subject of recycling should go ignored. There are obviously some real benefits in recycling, (aluminium cans is an example) but from the research that has been carried out, there seems to be a case that demands more answers from the municipalities and the government regarding the overall benefits that recycling brings to our planet.

  14. Kieran says:

    Hmm, this article doesn’t mention the possibility of re-use of items or waste minimisation. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waste_hierarchy)

    We all have to pay a great deal through taxes for the costs of municipal waste collection and landfill – an example of socialised costs arising from private profit. If we can reduce the amount of waste that needs to be dealt with that cost is reduced too.

    On recycling itself… Well, here in Wales, recycling firms might only pay a very small amount for cheaper materials such as glass, but each ton diverted from landfill avoids the £40+ /ton landfill charge- a net saving for the local taxpayer. From speaking to people who work in waste I gather that the more valuable materials such as paper and aluminium are always profitable.

    The author’s assertion that inter-state waste trade generates billions of dollars of wealth seems illogical to me. If one state pays another state to take waste, then wealth isn’t created. The taxpayers of the state that is exporting the waste are paying the (possibly private) interests in the receiving state.

    Perhaps Benjamin has a point about education programs being over-simplified to the point of patronising… but surely the solution there is to talk about the problems with recycling and the benefits of re-use, minimisation, smart design and so on.

  15. David says:

    A great deal of money is made by people who looby for recycling, and the contracts which results from new laws. Where there is money to be made, there is notivation for deception and corruption. If anyone thinks the recycling gears are ran by people who care more for the environment than profit, you are daft.

    The energy and resources required to recycle offset all gains, and in many cases are a step backward for environmental concerns. Just like everything else in this country, it is all about image.

  16. Chelsea says:

    I am a 15 year old girl in 9th grade.

    Having said that, I think that we should recycle. I think the person who wrote this article is a pig-headed, Earth hater. How old is the author? Old enough to not care about what happens after they are gone from this world. I am trying to save this planet so I will not die from all the pollution and landfills and trash that is taking up perfectly good space. I want to help this Earth so when I have kids, they will still be able to live and breath and have long happy lives.

    This is going to seem very childish but have any of you ever seen the movie Wall-E? I feel that if we continue on this path of throwing of garbage into landfills and not recycling we will have a very similar fate to this movie. We will run out of the things we need because of laziness and carelessness.

    We need Earth reusable substances, we will soon run out if we keep throwing them out.

    The cost of it wont matter if it means we, I, and my future children can live another day.

  17. Mitch says:

    Hello Chelsea, I’m glad to see that instead of rebutting dissenting opinions, you ignore the opposing evidence and introduce Pixar movies as the primary source of your arguments.

    Had you read so much as the first “myth” on the list, you might have seen the passage:
    “Indeed, the total land area needed to hold all of America’s garbage for the next century would be only about 10 miles square.”
    Century = 100 years.

    Another “pig-headed earth hater” as you call them, said the next 1,000 years could fit in 47 square miles, which is 1.24% of the United States total surface area. If we lessen the holes dimensions, but make it deeper, we can reduce the space even more.

    But please, ignore things such as logic and argument! The problem is not allocation for the trash, but rather the amount at which people litter. If everyone were to throw all their trash into the trash, your Wall-E scenario would be gone. And for those who complain about renewable resources, we have already figured how to make plastic out of corn, and are in the process of developing this.

    And with the trash now, and with the trash over the next 1,000 years, we can and do build things over the landfills, and many people are not even aware that they are walking on garbage. There is a park near my house, with these enormous mountains that in the winter people ski and sled down, and in the summer walk through the beautiful path that winds through it, with all sorts of plants and animals. They are mountains of garbage.

    But please, I wouldn’t want you to lose purpose in life, go on your quest to save the planet, and when you need to pay the bills for your recycling plants, borrow from friends! Or better yet, get government funding (which means that taxpayers do it)!

    There are more important and pressing problems than garbage and trash, once we overcome those, then let’s worry about the trees and the animals. Until that time, I’m going to obtain, use and dispose of all that I wish.

  18. Barry says:

    whoa ease up there mitch! chelsea makes a good point even though from a kids movie (which is based off of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a very adult movie). recycling is very important, whether its cost effective or not is not the issue…keeping it in the public eye IS. we need to not only recycle but use new materials. Starch based packaging that dissolves in water after shelf-life for example. without the public’s backing, implementation of new materials and implementation will never happen. in my mind, keep the “misconceptions” that green is good…

    recycling is not the end all be all by any means. but you are insane if you think its going to disappear anytime soon…

  19. Leland says:

    Why hello, my name is… o look at that its right above me… guess you can figure it out. I’m a freshman in college atm and with that said…

    Interesting article. I always find it health to have people opposing the mainstream tendencies but it has me asking a lot of questions about where the author got many of his facts from. For the life of me I can’t seem to any notation on this page which as I understand it makes it about as good as made up…. There is some passing reference to the EPA which is good but i’d really like to know the sources for oil not being any more scarce.

    We certainly aren’t in the worst position we could be right now. We are belching pollutants into the air at an astonishing rate but due to government regulation it is not nearly as nasty as it once was. Recycling has been costly in the past due to building the infrastructure to support it. Now that it has its sea legs I can see the cost of recycling going down, the only real obstacle is collecting the stuff which all of us concerned citizens have helped to do nicely. So the recycling agencies make buku bucks off of this… well shouldn’t they? If recycling is going to work in the long term it has to be economically sustainable… they turn a profit and the world’s resources aren’t so thin between the 6 billion and growing of us.

    The author’s made a good point in not all things are good to recycle, or at least not in all ways… after all recycling computer parts in china has left many villages and their inhabitants suffering horrible illness and death (poisoning ground water, etc.). Everything is with a grain of salt and just because something might be better left alone today doesn’t mean we will. If the author wants to stop recycling glass then I can see his merit. If it is safe and not profitable now, why not put just this glass away for a rainy day. Meanwhile we can perfect recycling in the areas where we will get the most bang for our buck and come back to the others we can spare at the present.

  20. Scott says:

    Mitch. You are exactly correct.

  21. Dan says:

    I was searching the web looking for articles on recycling vs landfill and found this one. I am a recycler and sometimes wonder if it’s really for the greater good. Now that I’ve read several articles and their comments I’ve decided to keep recycling, however, I won’t feel guilty when I can’t or don’t.

    I laughed when I read the photo caption “All of America’s garbage for the next century could fit in just one landfill, only about 10 miles square.” Really, that might be true, but what a goofy way to baffle the readers. I think the key word there is COULD. How deep would this 10-square-miles be? Let’s see, 10 miles divided by 52 states equals almost 0.2 square miles for each state. I may not frequent landfills, but the one closest to me is larger than that and I’m quite sure it’s not the only one in the state so if you read carefully it actually says, “could, but won’t” fit into 10 square miles.

    Business is about making money. Landfills make money and recycling facilities make money. So who’s going to get my money?
    Landfills don’t care much about the future. – People can try to figure out what to do with them when or if resources run out.
    Recycling reflects how people care about the future. – People get paid to watch the pollution levels. People get paid to find new technologies, like making corn into tableware.
    Since money is the driving argument for why we do or don’t recycle, I might as well be creating jobs by recycling instead of just handing my tax dollars over to a land owner.

    I’m just glad that we aren’t polluting the earth with as little regard as years before and I hope that voicing a concern will lead to solutions that are based on what’s best for the future, even if that ultimately means a 10 square mile of landfill per century. OH, and maybe I’ll be that land owner.

  22. Woodie says:

    What an incredibly short sighted and ignorant article.

  23. Malia says:

    Hello. Honestly… Recycling is the better than Landfills, in my opinun. For one, it is better for our environment. Landfills are like a hell whole. It’s like a giant hole with all of our waste, food, leftovers and stuff like that, in our Planet. Recycling gives us the oppurtunity to re-use those materials and objects again. I just want to make Earth a better place. Just know that we only have this one Planet to live on and if we keep using those useless landfills, our Planet will be no more. Thank you. By the way, I am only 12 years old so please, don’t use words to you know, hurt me. Thanks again. :)

  24. Malia says:

    Hello. I saw a comment from “Great” and that was very rude and also very obnoxious and un-called for. What ever race you are, we Americans are just as equal as you are. So stop critizing (sorry if I spelt that wrong but you probably know what I mean) people. Thanks.

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