Popular Environmental Myths,
Part II

Water quality is declining 
 
We are running out of landfill space   The Industrial Revolution was a mistake
Recycling is always good Nuclear power is bad Forests are being destroyed

Water Quality is Declining

Fact: The quality of water in the world's oceans appears to be good, although long-standing problems exist in coastal waters. Fish, shellfish and other marine life suffer from the effects of coastal sewage treatment and industrial discharges. The Council on Environmental Quality reported in 1993 that "in contrast to coastal regions, the open sea lanes remain, for the most part, of minor consequence to communities of organisms living in the open-ocean areas." The water quality of American's rivers is improving greatly. The first National Water Quality Inventory, conducted in 1973, found that water pollution levels had decreased considerably in most major waterways during the decade of the 1960s. The cleanup of America's rivers started in the late 1960s and continued into the `80s. Also during the 1980s about $23 billion a year was spent by governments and private industry to comply with the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972. Swimming has resumed in the Hudson River north of New York City. Salmon spawn in Maine's once-polluted Androscoggin River and the Great Lakes now support a growing sport fishing industry.

Example: The water quality in the Mississippi River dramatically exceeds that of rivers in other industrialized nations. The Rhine River in Germany, for example, has 3.4 times the concentration of nitrates as the Mississippi, 7.5 times as much ammonium and nearly twice the level of biological oxygen demand (indicative of higher amounts of organic pollution).

Source: Joseph Bast, Peter Hill, Richard Rue, Eco-Sanity


We are running out of landfill space

Fact: All of the garbage America produces in the next 1,000 years would fit in an area 44 miles on each side and about 120 feet deep. About 73 percent of all municipal solid waste in the United States ends up in landfills. And despite many potential landfill spaces, the number of landfills actually receiving trash is shrinking. Over the past 10 years, more than half of the 18,500 municipal solid waste landfills that existed in 1979 have closed. Further, once lined and covered, a landfill is not permanently unusable. Parks, golf courses and buildings cover the surface of some covered landfills. Properly sited and operated, landfills pose little threat either to human health or to the environment.

Example: A landfill containing the next 1,000 years' worth of U.S. garbage would occupy less than one-tenth of one percent of our land.

Source: A. Clark Wiseman, U.S. Wastepaper Recycling Policies: Issues and Effects; Lynn Scarlett, A Consumer's Guide to Environmental Myths and Realities


The Industrial Revolution was a Mistake

"No, it's all people's fault," said a New York Times opinion editorial. "Certainly industry has played a significant role in destroying habitats, generating pollution and depleting resources. But we're the ones who signal businesses that what they're doing is acceptable—every time we open our wallets." In his book "Earth Politics," Ernst Ulrich von Weizsacker wrote that "perhaps 90 percent of the extinction of species, soil erosion, forest and wilderness destruction and also desertification are taking place in developing countries." Therefore, even non-industrialized economies are creating environmental havoc.

Source: The New York Times, opinion editorial, January 21, 1995


Recycling is always good

Fact: Many recycling methods do generate resource and energy savings, but only 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. Also, studies show that recycling itself has environmental side effects. For example, recycling requires production facilities that in some cases may be located hundreds of miles from cities where garbage is collected. Simply getting the product to the facility may require considerable use of fuel and other scare resources. Example: In Rhode Island, the net cost of recycling often exceeds $180 per ton, compared to $120 to $160 per ton for ordinary waste collection and disposal.

Source: Virginia Postrel and Lynn Scarlett, "Talking Trash," Reason


Nuclear Power is Bad

Fact: One of the biggest misconceptions about the use of nuclear power is that people will be exposed to large amounts of radiation. "The radiation we are exposed to from natural sources is hundreds of times greater than the well-publicized radiation we may some day receive from the nuclear power industry," wrote Dr. Bernard Cohen, professor of radiation health at the University of Pittsburgh. Federal law requires that radiation from nuclear power plants not exceed five millirems per year. (A millirem is a unit of measurement representing the effect of radiation on the human body.) What about the risks associated with a meltdown or major leaks of radiation? The thick concrete and steel containment domes that cover nuclear reactors in the United States prevent the release of radiation even if a cooling system fails. This was demonstrated during the accident at Three Mile Island. The maximum level of human exposure to radiation resulting from the accident was about 70 millirems, and the average exposure was just 1.2 millirems. Researchers have been unable to find any increase in cancer rates among persons living within a 20-mile radius of the plant since the accident. Also, studies by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission confirm findings that the risks to life and the environment posed by nuclear power, while not zero, are considerably less than what is posed by burning coal, oil and other fuels. Nuclear power has been demonstrated to be a safe and clean source of energy.

Example: A single coast-to-coast airplane flight subjects its passengers to five millirems of radiation in a single day, the same amount a nuclear power plant is allowed to emit over the period of a year.

Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission; Joseph Bast, Peter Hill, Rich ard Rue, Eco-Sanity


Forests are being destroyed

Fact: "Less logging now occurs in the national forests than at any time since the early 1950s," writes Hal Salwasser of the U.S. Forest Service. "For example, 29 percent less timber volume was harvested in 1991 than in 1988. The area harvested by clearcutting has declined by 34 percent during the same period, part of a transition to an estimated 70 percent reduction by mid-decade." In all developed countries in the world, including the United States and Canada, forestry in now conducted on a sustainable yield basis whereby growth exceeds harvests. But even with the advance of sustainable yield forestry, American forests still face threats. The federal government does indeed sell the right to harvest wood on public lands at a loss of millions of dollars each year, in effect subsidizing logging in natural areas that otherwise would not be logged. Some 342,000 miles of government-built roads—eight times the mileage of the U.S. interstate highways system—run through our national forests, causing erosion and encouraging development. Example: According to the U.S. Forest Service, annual timber growth in the nation now exceeds harvest by 37 percent. Annual growth has exceeded harvest every year since 1952. In 1992, just 348,000 acres—six-tenths of one percent of the national forest land open to harvesting—were actually harvested.

Source: U.S. Forest Service. Joseph Bast, Peter Hill, Richard Rue, Eco-Sanity. u


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