Recycling Garbage

Over in the New York Times today, John Tierney revisits recycling, an update on a NY Times Magazine piece he wrote in 1996 (“Recycling is Garbage“) criticizing recycling that generated record hate mail from readers. His update argues persuasively that nothing much has changed since then:

[In 1996] I presented plenty of evidence that recycling was costly and ineffectual, but its defenders said that it was unfair to rush to judgment. Noting that the modern recycling movement had really just begun just a few years earlier, they predicted it would flourish as the industry matured and the public learned how to recycle properly.

So, what’s happened since then? While it’s true that the recycling message has reached more people than ever, when it comes to the bottom line, both economically and environmentally, not much has changed at all. . .

Tierney walks through the evidence that recycling may actually increase greenhouse gas emissions in many cases. Worth reading the whole thing. But this is not likely to sway elite opinion:

Then why do so many public officials keep vowing to do more of it? Special-interest politics is one reason — pressure from green groups — but it’s also because recycling intuitively appeals to many voters: It makes people feel virtuous, especially affluent people who feel guilty about their enormous environmental footprint. It is less an ethical activity than a religious ritual, like the ones performed by Catholics to obtain indulgences for their sins.

Over at Instapundit this morning, Tierney notes one comment that has come in so far that nails it:

It is quite remarkable how at least 80% of the comments so far consist of someone saying, in effect, “but I just know it is right” (without responding to Tierney’s cogent analysis), picking fights with straw man points, or pontificating about grand ideas that do not change the simple economics of the real world. I have not seen any substantive bit of analysis that finds fault with Tierney’s core points, and yet there are numerous conclusions that he is wrong. I would guess that that recycling enthusiasts fancy themselves to be more open-minded and scientifically literate than average. Apparently such “open mindedness” is reserved for criticisms of other special interests, and they dig in their heals when it is their own rites that are being questioned.