A Consumer’s Guide to Environmental Myths

Lynn Scarlett

In recent years, numerous groups, including federal agencies, have offered advice on how Americans can be "good environmentalists." Through broadcast and print media, consumers, legislators and even children are told what products and what actions are environmentally "good" and "bad." Although frequently well-intentioned, the advice is all too often based on little more than the simple-minded application of such core beliefs as "recycling is good," "disposables are bad," "packaging is bad," "plastics are bad," etc. In many cases, the advice-givers focus on only one environmental concern (such as the volume of solid waste) while ignoring all others (such as air pollution, water pollution, energy use and the use of other scarce resources). From the perspective of the total environment, the advice is often wrong. Consumers who try to follow simple rules when they shop may end up harming the environment more than if they simply ignored the environmental consequences of their behavior. Listed here are 10 myths consumers are led to believe—followed by facts.

Myth No. 1: We are running out of landfill space. All of the garbage America produces in the next 1,000 years would fit in a landfill that occupies less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the continental United States. (A. Clark Wiseman, U.S. Wastepaper Recycling Policies: Issues and Effects.)

Myth No. 2: Americans are especially wasteful. When a common definition of garbage is used, American households produce only 7 percent more solid waste than the Japanese. Moreover, careful studies show that the amount of waste we generate per person has remained virtually constant over the past two decades and the amount of waste per dollar of GNP has been falling. (Office of Technology Assessment, Facing American’s Trash: What’s Next for Municipal Solid Waste?)

MYTH NO. 3: Packaging is bad. Because of state-of-the-art packaging, the United States wastes less food than any part of the world except Africa, where the threat of starvation means that even rotten food is consumed. Because of packaging, we can meet our consumption needs while producing less food—which means fewer pesticides, less pollution and less energy use. The same principle also applies to non-food packaging. (Harvey Alter, The Origins of Municipal Solid Waste.)

Myth No. 4: Plastics are bad. Without the use of plastics, our total use of packaging materials (measured by weight) would increase four-fold; our energy consumption would double and the garbage we dispose of would more than double. (William Shireman, California Futures.)

Myth No. 5: Disposables are bad. Careful studies show that disposables are not necessarily worse than reusable or recyclable products. For example: Aseptic juice boxes (which are usually disposed of, rather than recycled) have a clear edge over their alternatives by most measures. Consumers who care mainly about landfills may choose cloth diapers. But consumers who care more about air and water pollution and conserving water and energy might choose disposables, which may also be preferable on the grounds of health and convenience. (Franklin Associates, Disposbale Diapers: Summary and Interpretation of Literature Sources on the Environmental and Health Effects of Diapers.)

Myth No. 6: Recycling is always good. Lots of recycling actually does generate resource and energy savings up to a point. A 1997 Reason Public Policy Institute study that looked carefully at the cost/savings aspect of recycling for six materials—glass, one grade paper, steel, and three kinds of plastic—found that under best-case conditions, at modest levels of recycling, recycling of most of these materials (one exception was one of the plastic resins) resulted in some net benefits. But, under less than best-case conditions, and at higher levels of recycled content, most recycling actually generated net costs in terms of total use of economic resources. (Virginia Postrel and Lynn Scarlett, "Talking Trash," Reason.)

Myth No. 7: Nonbiodegradable products are bad. For two-thirds of the nation's landfills (those without liners), it's the products which degrade that pose a potential environmental threat. Degradation can lead to leaching and chemicals reach the water supply and cause a health threat to fish, wildlife and humans. The other one-third of landfills are completely sealed and allow very little degradation. For those landfills, consumer choices regarding degradability do not matter. (Virginia Postrel and Lynn Scarlett, "Talking Trash," Reason.)

Myth No. 8: Recycling paper saves trees. Often, trees used to make paper are grown explicitly for that purpose, so if we use less paper, fewer trees will be planted and grown by commercial harvesters. Recycling paper may save some trees (though these trees are not old-growth forests), but it also reduces the incentives to plant them. (Pieter Tans, Inez Fung and Taro Takahashi, Observational Constraints on the Global Atmospheric CO2 Budget.)

Myth No. 9: We cannot safely dispose of solid waste. This was a valid concern in the past. In fact, 22 percent of Superfund sites (hazardous waste disposal areas) are former municipal landfills. But things are different today. Government regulations and new technology permit the safe disposal of solid waste—in landfills or by waste-to-energy incineration—without threat to human health or the environment. Even without new improvements, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the aggregate risk from all operating municipal solid waste landfills in the United States is one cancer death every 23 years. (Reported by the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, Office of Management and Budget.)

Myth No. 10: We are running out of resources. Although all resources are finite, technology and markets make it possible to use resources without exhausting them. That's why the international price of virtually every raw material went down (reflecting abundance), not up (reflecting scarcity) over the past decade. (J.H. Muroyama and H.G. Stever, The Technology Revolution and the Restructuring of the Global Economy.)

Avoiding Future Myths

Millions of schoolchildren and unwary adults have been told that there are simple rules by which they can judge the environmental correctness of products. In fact, there are no simple, reliable rules. Since every simple rule is based on only one environmental concern, following the rules may cause more harm than good overall. Fortunately, environmentally-conscious consumers have a much more reliable guide: market prices. For most products, market prices already reflect the cost of valuable resources used in their production, as well as the cost of controlling most air and water pollution and making efficient use of energy. Market prices allow us to compare the cost of resources used to produce a product with other values we hold.

Lynn Scarlett is Vice President of Research of the Reason Foundation, a nonprofit public policy think tank based in Los Angeles, California.