If there's a buzzword in the business of managing America's solid waste problem, surely it is "recycling." At times the term seems to have taken on an almost religious meaning, with the faithful assuming that "disposable" is bad and "recycling" is good by definition.

A recent task force report from The Mackinac Center for Public Policy argues from a different perspective, namely, that sometimes recycling makes sense and sometimes it doesn't. In the legislative rush to pass recycling mandates, states and localities should pause to consider both the science and the economics of every proposition. Often, bad ideas are worse than none at all and can produce counterproductive effects if they are enshrined in law.

Accordingly, the federal Office of Technology Assessment warns against legislative "quick fixes" and even rigid application of its own waste management recommendations. "Mandatory recycling approaches should be undertaken only after the full range of social and economic costs are clearly understood," says OTA. Simply demanding that something be recycled can be disruptive of markets and is no guarantee that in fact recycling which makes either economic or environmental sense will occur.

One area where recycling plainly works is in the disposal of aluminum cans. Since the process requires 10 percent less energy than transforming bauxite into aluminum, it pays for producers to use recycled cans. Hence, a market has spontaneously developed for these cans and market incentives encourage entrepreneurs to find efficient ways to collect them.

One area where recycling doesn't make sense is in the disposal of juice containers used principally by school children. Aseptic (disposable) packages such as those small juice boxes have been banned in Maine and are a frequent target of the more extreme environmentalists. But as our study strongly suggests, this may not be the way to go. Consider these factors:

  • Filling disposable boxes requires about half as much energy as filling the supposedly preferable alternative, glass bottles.

  • For a given beverage volume, transporting empty glass bottles requires 15 times as many trucks as the empty boxes--thus using more fuel and causing more air pollution.

  • Because the end product is lightweight, small and rectangular, the filled boxes can be transported more efficiently than full glass bottles--using 35 percent less energy.

  • And since aseptic boxes are the only containers which do not require refrigeration, they do not contribute to CFC production, a byproduct of conventional refrigerants and which some environmentalists claim is a threat to the earth's ozone layer.

A number of states have threatened to ban disposable diapers as a way to encourage the use (and recycling) of cloth diapers. Studies show, however, that when all environmental effects are considered, cloth has no clear advantage over disposables. In California and other western states where there is relatively abundant landfill space and a shortage of water, the case for disposables is actually quite strong. Residents of those states who avoid them and wash cloth diapers with scarce water may actually be doing harm to the environment.

Several cities, including Portland, Oregon and Newark, New Jersey, have essentially banned polystyrene food packages. That's what McDonald's used to put its burgers in until it was pressured into switching to paperboard containers. The average American thinks these efforts are positive for the environment because they will somehow promote recycling. They also believe that because paper is "biodegradable" and polystyrene is not, the switch will reduce the need for landfills. The truth of the matter is more complicated than that.

Polystyrene, it so happens, is completely recyclable, which isn't always true of the paper used in, say, drinking cups. And those paper cups, by the way, cost the consumer about 2-1/2 times as much as polystyrene.

Studies also show that production of the old polystyrene McDonald's hamburger shell actually used 30 percent less energy than paperboard and resulted in 46 percent less air pollution and 42 percent less water pollution. The average 10-gram paper cup consumes 33 grams of wood and uses 28 percent more petroleum in its manufacture than the entire input of a polystyrene cup.

Furthermore, the paper cup requires 36 times more chemical input (partly because it weighs seven times as much) and takes about 12 times as much steam, 36 times as much electricity and twice as much cooling water to make, compared to its polystyrene counterpart. And, about 580 times as much waste water, 10 to 100 times the residual effluents of pollutants and three times the air emission pollutants are produced in making the paper cup.

Managing solid waste disposal requires a mix of policies and practices, from the use of incinerators to state-of-the-art, environmentally safe landfills to composting. Recycling can play an important and constructive role in that mix, provided that it is based on good science and sound economics, not emotions.