Recycling is a distraction

John Tierney, writing in the New York Times:

to reduce carbon emissions, you’ll accomplish a lot more by sorting paper and aluminum cans than by worrying about yogurt containers and half-eaten slices of pizza. Most people also assume that recycling plastic bottles must be doing lots for the planet. They’ve been encouraged by the Environmental Protection Agency, which assures the public that recycling plastic results in less carbon being released into the atmosphere.

But how much difference does it make? Here’s some perspective: To offset the greenhouse impact of one passenger’s round-trip flight between New York and London, you’d have to recycle roughly 40,000 plastic bottles, assuming you fly coach. If you sit in business- or first-class, where each passenger takes up more space, it could be more like 100,000.

Recycling many products, especially plastic and metal is enormously expensive and it does not necessarily offset the environmental effects of alternative means of handling the waste. Mostly it’s a distraction. It’s a form of absolution. Like the guy who builds an enormous mansion and slaps an array of photovoltaics on the roof. He will never recoup the energy expended in converting raw materials to building products and assembling them into a house.

Not consuming in the first place side-steps the issue entirely. We need to consume less. But since the “not consuming” lobby is non-existent we’ll never see structural solutions, only individual behaviors.