Update: Caroline Garnett was offered the opportunity to write an article in response to this piece and that article will be posted with only light edits for grammar and clarity.
Earth’s sixth mass extinction is currently underway. This is not the first time that animal life has caused an extinction event; it will, however, be the first time that one of Earth’s species can both see the event coming and recognize the hand it has played in the annihilation. In the face of such a prospect, many of us will want to join the plethora “do-something” campaigns that focus on changing individual lifestyles. These terminal burrowing efforts are completely understandable, but often equally ineffective.
The “Zero Waste” initiative discussed in the Monday, September 9th, Daily Texan opinion forum is one such existential distraction. Zero waste movements aim to divert waste away from landfills and into allegedly more sustainable operations, such as recycling. UT’s zero waste initiative, according to sustainability coordinator Neil Kaufman, seeks to divert “90% of waste away from the landfill” by 2020, up from its current 40 percent diversion rate.
In her piece released on the same day, the sustainability policy director of UT’s Student Government, Caroline Garnett, ensures that “Student Government will make zero waste a priority.” Garnett mentions many of the successes that her division has had in instituting zero waste policies on campus to get UT to its current 40 percent rate. However, this is the low-hanging fruit. Initial gains are always easier. Scaling from zero percent to 40 percent is easier than from 40 percent to 80 percent.
Beyond these initial gains, the road ahead looks bumpy. Many of the proposals Garnett advocates are far outside of the limited budget and purview of SG. More fundamentally, these proposals take at face value that recycling is one of the more cost-effective means of offsetting greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, it simply isn’t.
All Roads Lead to China
“China has been the world’s dumpster for almost 50 years,” according to Columbia’s Alice Roche-Naude. And that was their choice. Prior to 2018, China was the primary market for recyclables. Chinese industries would buy cheap scrap materials and use them in manufacturing. According to a study cited in Roche-Naude’s article, “more than two-thirds of the world’s plastic waste has ended up in China.”
In 2018, however, this trend reversed on a dime. China instituted a ban on 24 types of “foreign garbage.” In 2019, Beijing announced that it would expand the ban to 32 types of scrap products. The ban targets various plastics, paper, and scrap materials that are frequently soiled with organic waste. U.S. exporters did $5.6 billion in scrap trade with China in 2016 alone, however, in the wake of the ban, scrap exporters are scrambling to find new markets for their plastic waste. None readily present themselves.
This all means that more of the waste that is “diverted” through recycling is likely to end up in landfills regardless because it is prohibitively expensive to recycle that material in the U.S. — which is why we used to send it to China.
Waste that is “diverted” from landfills through recycling only to end up there again is more wasteful than simple trash. A dirty recycled plastic must be shipped to the recycling center, sorted by a worker there, and then shipped to the landfill. That all costs money and emits more carbon through increased shipping than just throwing the plastic away.
So if they are willing to go through all of that extra effort, proponents of zero waste must have some very good reasons to think that landfills are particularly horrible, right?
The Specter of Landfills
As John Tierney chronicled for the New York Times, landfills are not the monstrosity that many make them out to be. According to Tierney’s 1996 piece, “all of the trash generated by Americans for the next 1,000 years would fit on one-tenth of 1 percent of the land available for grazing.” Of course, Tierney does not mean that all of America’s trash would be shipped to a central location, but the point is illustrative of just how space-effective are modern landfills. America is not running out of landfill space anytime soon.
As for methane emissions, it’s complicated. As Kaufman notes, landfills are the third-largest source of methane emissions in the U.S., accounting for 16 percent in 2017. However, landfills are a distant third behind energy production and animal agriculture which combined make up two-thirds of total U.S. methane emissions. Giving up meat is probably not the answer either, but in most cases, neither is tying oneself in knots to divert trash from landfills. As previously mentioned, recycled waste that ends up in a landfill is more wasteful than simple trash.
Finally, UT students should also recognize that our waste is not going to the great big landfill in the sky, but instead to one of the several landfills near Austin. As reported by KUT in 2010, both of the private landfills in Travis county — owned by Allied Waste and Waste Management — have methane capture/energy conversion systems. As reported in the Austin Chronicle earlier this year, the Austin Community Landfill already has methane capture systems in place which use methane “to generate electricity” or “be burned off at a flare.”
Landfills might be unseemly — though many are eventually covered with dirt and turned into a public park — but they are not the bugbear of environmentalists nightmares, especially compared with the costly and wasteful alternative: overzealous recycling.
When Recycling is Actually Wasteful
Three materials account for 90 percent of the carbon emission savings from recycling: paper, cardboard, and metal cans (mostly aluminum). If you have ever wondered why you can still get paid to collect and recycle aluminum soda cans but not plastic soda bottles, the answer is simple: aluminum is much easier to recycle than plastic and it is worth more. Conveniently, these materials are also quite easy to sort and it makes sense to have separate containers for each.
The remaining materials — most plastics, glass, food, yard waste — account for only 10 percent of carbon emission savings from recycling, which in turn is “only two-tenths of one percent of America’s carbon footprint.” These are also the materials most immediately affected by China’s foreign garbage ban.
Ten percent is not zero percent, it is not nothing, right? Sure, that is true, and if there were no trade-offs associated with recycling the materials that help us reduce our footprint by two-tenths of one percent, I wouldn’t be writing this article. But there are trade-offs, serious ones.
In some areas where recycling centers are struggling to offload their materials, consumers are being offered the choice of simply throwing materials in the garbage or paying a higher cost to continue recycling. Again, this might make sense in a vacuum, but it makes zero sense when there are more effective methods, like simply paying companies to reduce their carbon emissions by buying cap-and-trade allowances. It may not give you the beatific glow of winning your neighborhood’s recycling award, but at least it’s more effective.
The same is true of the proposed initiatives in Caroline Garnett’s article. One initiative currently underway is introducing compostable utensils and containers in University Unions. Compostables are just one part of the group that accounts for only ten percent of carbon emission savings from recycling. The cost difference is also high (roughly $60 for compostable — different than eco-friendly or biodegradable — forks vs. $16 for regular plastic on a restaurant web marketplace).
University dining is a self-funding program, meaning students would bear these costs eventually. Students who are environmentally conscious might be willing to do so, in which case they could calculate the cost difference and donate that directly to a carbon offset initiative or help buy cap-and-trade allowances. Garnett’s plan would take your money and dump it into a program that hopes to indirectly reduce carbon emissions through composting. To say this plan has a mixed chance of success is generous.
Likewise with Garnett’s proposal of having a paid sustainability intern — casting no aspersions on who would be well-positioned to receive such a sinecure. The cost of supporting an intern who might help implement a plan that may reduce carbon emissions through recycling or composting is not a game of environmental roulette we should be playing when there are more effective, direct options for offsetting emissions. (Especially if the administration were to pay them $15/hr as another Daily Texan op-ed would have them do.)
At the Altar of Recycling
As each of the forum writers recognizes, we have come a long way. Forty percent diversion is great and the proposals that got us there — separate sorting bins, donating leftovers, feeding local animals — make sense environmentally and economically. But as Kaufman recognizes, “our diversion rate has plateaued around 40 percent,” and “no other university in the country is close to a zero waste status.” Maybe this means we should try harder, or maybe it means something else entirely: we have already implemented the low-cost, effective methods; the journey from forty to eighty percent will be a lot more difficult.
In the face of such difficulties, those who believe in recycling with near-religious fervor might be willing to make such sacrifices as higher food costs, more time of their day spent sorting recyclables, and fewer resources available to other initiatives. What they may be willing to personally sacrifice at the altar of recycling may know no bounds.
But in most cases, the sacrifice is public, not personal. It means higher food costs for everyone, more time spent for all of us, and fewer resources for all students. When we are called on to bear such costs, shouldn’t we require that such policies have a less tenuous connection to their end goal than did the offerings to Zeus to the net rainfall in ancient Athens?
The policies on offer to get UT to “zero waste” — or the admittedly less sexy but more accurate, “ten percent” waste — are contingent and indirect with a lot of questionable assumptions about recycling underlying their connection to the end goal of reducing carbon and methane emissions. Given the increasing marginal cost of diverting more waste and the availability of more direct alternatives, I suggest that we keep our offals out of this particular brazier for the time being.