I am curious about whether their arguments are valid or not. I watched the episode with a friend of mine who is committed to recycling. She didn't have an answer for Penn and Teller's arguments in the episode. I personally had supported recycling efforts until seeing the episode. I have not made a final decision on the validity of recycling and am in the process of seeking further answers.
For this reason I went to wikipedia to see if they had anything on the controversy (not that I trust wikipedia, but on topics such as this it doesn't seem to be a bad start). They cite a number of old articles on the topic, so their entry may not be up to date. For example, the article discusses the issue of recycling paper. To discuss this, they cite Steven Landsburg's book, The Armchair Economist, which was published -- in 1993. They write:
Economist Steven Landsburg has claimed that paper recycling actually reduces tree populations. He argues that because paper companies have incentives to replenish the forests they own, large demands for paper lead to large forests. Conversely, reduced demand for paper leads to fewer "farmed" forests. Similar arguments were expressed in a 1995 article for The Free Market.The most recent source here is 1995. That doesn't mean that it's inaccurate, but it does mean that it's old and that conditions may have changed, making paper recycling more efficient.
Likewise, they cite old studies to signal the high cost of recycling programs. They write:
In a 1996 article for The New York Times, John Tierney argued that it costs more money to recycle the trash of New York City than it does to dispose of it in a landfill. Tierney argued that the recycling process employs people to do the additional waste disposal, sorting, inspecting, and many fees are often charged because the processing costs used to make the end product are often more than the price gained from its sale. Tierney also referenced a study conducted by the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) that found in the six communities involved in the study, "all but one of the curbside recycling programs, and all the composting operations and waste-to-energy incinerators, increased the cost of waste disposal."Again, the course is very old -- a study from 1996. That doesn't mean that it's not valid, but again, conditions may have changed making recycling more cost efficient.
That doesn't seem to be the case, though. As Penn and Teller point out on their show, market forces help develop programs where they make sense. That is why it is easy to recycle aluminum cans (besides leaving them in trash cans for homeless people to collect) -- recycled aluminum is just as good as the original and is a lot cheaper.
Penn and Teller also note an important point about recycling in general: it is the third activity from the environmental pyramid: reduce, reuse, recycle. They are ranked in the order of efficiency: reduction is obviously the best way to lower the need for natural resources, but it is often impossible. It is also useful to reuse things as many times as possible. Recycling is the least efficient (and, as they and other economists claim, may not be efficient at all).
What this analysis leaves out, though, is the message that is being sent by the mere existence of recycling programs. Without them, would people think about lowering their use of natural resources? As we've seen with gas and oil, only when it surpasses certain markers. The line seems to be around or a bit over $3 per gallon; that's when news sources carry stories about people hyper miling and when people stop buying SUVs and start looking for more fuel efficient cars (don't get me started).
Of course, what these studies show in part is that not all use is necessarily bad for the environment -- trees used for paper are grown on tree farms, and these farms exist because there is demand for paper. If the demand for paper drops, these farms stand to disappear as well, leaving the world with fewer trees. It seems paradoxical, but using non-recycled paper may actually help the environment if these claims are correct!
In the meantime, I continue to search for more information. I throw my plastics into the trash. After all, Penn and Teller cite an estimate that a landfill that measures 35 miles by 35 miles (that 's a lot of real estate, but also small in another respect) by a few hundred feet (deep) would contain all the trash produced for the next 1000 years. Landfills apparently have value too -- they put golf courses on top and even produce energy.