Click for audio Recycling and Conventional Wisdom

Taking out the trash and separating recyclables is a typical household chore for many Michigan school children. It’s also an opportunity to teach them valuable lessons about economic principles and environmental policy.

Conventional wisdom says that recycling is good because we’re running out of landfill space, that landfills are serious health hazards, and that recycling saves natural resources. Economic and scientific evidence seriously challenge this conventional wisdom.

Landfill space is growing, not shrinking, and landfill dumping fees are declining, which is the market’s way of saying we’re not running out of space.

Landfills are a safe way to manage waste. All currently operating landfills present only one cancer risk every 13 years.

It can make sense to recycle some things, such as aluminum cans, but landfilling the trash often saves more natural resources than recycling does. That’s because more energy and natural resources are consumed at every step of the recycling process: collecting, sorting, transporting, and energy-intensive remanufacturing of recycled products.

Recycling is too often a solution in search of a problem. It’s a good way to manage solid waste in some situations, but it’s not automatically the best approach in every situation.

For the Mackinac Center, this is Catherine Martin.