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September 2007

Good Morning America misinforms viewers about the value of recycling in America

On July 18, Good Morning America aired a segment with Stephen Dubner, co-author, with Steven D. Levitt, of the best-selling book Freaknominics. Several online responses to Dubner’s appearance on the show refer to him as an economist, but in truth it is co-author Levitt who is the economist.

Dubner is a journalist. He has written for the New York Times and The New Yorker and has been included in several anthologies. He has great credentials for a writer - not an economist.

Good Morning America anchor Chris Cuomo introduced him as an expert on recycling. He said, “Why do we do it? Because we believe it helps. But does it? It’s a complicated answer that begs reckoning, and there’s only one man to achieve that task.”

It’s hard to believe that Dubner was the most qualified person ABC could find to discuss recycling, but he was treated as an expert during his interviews on both Good Morning America and an ABC news audio segment.

Dubner said that recycling isn’t always a good thing. He admitted that recycling metals is good, but he doesn’t think that plastics or paper should be recycled. His quick test as to whether something is worth recycling is whether it would be stolen if you left it outside for a week.

While it’s true that metals would bring a better return at a local scrap yard, it doesn’t mean that paper and plastic have no value as recyclables. It’s obvious to those in the paper and plastic recycling industries that the material has value – or they wouldn’t be bringing home a paycheck.

Dubner said that aluminum beverage cans have a deposit value while plastic water bottles do not, therefore aluminum cans are more recyclable. That’s a clear indication of his narrow research. Can and bottle deposit laws are not nationwide and deposit values don’t correlate with recycling values.

The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) recently published recycling facts as they relate to the United States economy, global trade and the environment. ISRI data on the $65 billion, United States based scrap recycling industry indicates that the industry processes more than 145 billion tons of recyclable material annually. Part of that figure includes 957,500 tons of plastic bottles.

Dubner said, “Recycling newspaper into new newsprint is very expensive; it’s often more expensive than buying new stuff…new stuff is produced by tree farms which are kinda good for the environment.” Using highly technical terms like “new stuff” and precise phrases like, “often more expensive” and “kinda good” doesn’t help his case, and he failed to explain why paper recycling exists as an industry if it’s not profitable. “Nobody wants to buy recycled newsprint,” he said. This probably comes as quite a surprise to all the buyers and sellers of newsprint in the United States and export markets.

Environmentally, producing recycled paper takes less energy – from 28 to 70 percent less than when making virgin paper, according to a Dartmouth study. It also uses less water overall, and produces fewer emissions.

Dubner has forgotten that waste paper that isn’t recycled has to go somewhere and that incurs costs of disposal. If it costs a municipality less to recycle paper than to landfill that same paper, recycling is still a better bargain.

As far as landfilling, Dubner said, “We were conditioned to think that landfills are bad and we are running out of room.” He explained how easy it is – just dig a hole, line it, make it safe, fill it up, and build a school on top of it when it’s full. He thinks that recycling is much more difficult.

Dubner said that America has a lot of empty land that you can see when you fly across the nation, so obviously we’ve got lots of space for landfills. “The solution is much less bad than we have been scared into thinking,” he said. Much less bad?

He failed to note that the places that generate the most trash – cities – tend to be far away from vast areas of empty land. While it’s true that there’s a lot of empty space in the United States, the space that’s appropriate for landfills and close enough to major cities to make transportation feasible is harder to come by. Let’s face it, no one wants a landfill within breathing distance of their home.

Dubner made statements about the environmental impact of recycling versus using virgin materials and his assertion was that recycling can be more damaging. It would be interesting for him to back those assertions with data.

In contrast and according to a 2006 ISRI Fact Memo, energy savings from using recycled paper and plastic vs. virgin ore, stand at 64% and 80% respectively. Annual recycling also diverts 145 million tons of material away from landfills. By safely removing potentially hazardous materials such as mercury, lead and various harmful chemical that may leach from electronics, these elements are kept out of landfills when previously, they may not have been.

Many of Dubner’s statements had grains of truth running through them. Yes, municipal recycling may not be a money-making venture, but it’s not meant to be. If cost was the only factor, municipalities would tell homeowners to dig pits in their backyards, burn what can be burned, and bury the rest, at no financial cost to anyone. Obviously, there have to be concerns other than financial.

The big flaw in Dubner’s recycling theory is his value test – that if someone would steal it, it’s worth recycling. A better test would be whether there is a self-supported industry that has a market for the material. Since recyclers can easily sell scrap metal, paper, plastic and glass, it should be obvious to an economist – or even a journalist – that those materials have value.