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Ecofables/Ecoscience

Countering the distortion of environmental science.

Recycling the New York Times Magazine for Fun and Profit

by Adam I. Davis, Regional Community Relations Manager
Waste Management, Inc., Oakland, CA 94603

John Tierney's article, "Recycling is Garbage" (NY Times Magazine cover article; June 30, 1996), is part of a larger current of anti-environmental thought which has received a lot of visibility lately. Although the article is nearly two years old, the Times still prominently features the "bottles and cans" cover which proclaims "What a Waste" in its television ads for home delivery.

The essential notion of the piece is that there is a deep-rooted conflict between the free market and environmental values, and that adherence to values without deference to the market is futile, misguided, and uninformed. The flames of this conflict, which he fans vigorously, seem real enough, like a childhood story we've heard over and over again. But the idea that commerce and environmental values cannot coexist is one of the most damaging “Ecofables” of our time, and the topic Tierney chooses to make his case, recycling, is in fact one of the best examples of the increasing convergence of these two realms.

He begins his piece with a description of a third grade class at a “litter hunt” - part of an environmental education curriculum. The kids are looking through the waste materials, deciding what is recyclable and what isn't, and the teacher asks, "How does all this make you feel?" "Bad," the students reply. But Tierney doesn't feel bad, and he doesn't want you to feel bad either. He argues that recycling is a waste of time, money, energy and resources, and the "happily ever after" conclusion is that all this foolish environmentalist worry wasn't necessary after all.

His piece concludes, in fact, with a reference to John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, wherein a "muckraker" is salvaging stuff from the trash. The muckraker, he says, being obsessed with material things, misses out on the finer parts of life. The muckraker, he says, is always looking down, and never sees the "golden celestial crown" being offered from above.

What a shame, if those children had skipped the litter hunt in favor of Tierney's lesson: that we shouldn't be so concerned with the Earth we inherit and pass on. He would teach the kids that it's a waste of time to worry about these "material things", and that the whole point of being a rich American is to be able to waste as much as you can afford, so that you can spend your time on sweeter pleasures.

This fringe position, which tries to make again the old claim that our interests are best served by not being too well informed, is odd at best, downright sinister at worst coming from the New York Times. I might say to the kids instead, with eight big pages as a celestial trumpet, that materials matter a lot, because they come from the world, and the world matters a lot. I might tell them for example, that the most beautiful paintings are made from oil, and pigment and canvas, that oil comes from beans and seeds, that pigment called Umber comes from the region called Umbria, and that canvas is made from cotton. I"d talk about how cotton is grown, and transported, and manufactured, and what all that means. Like the song says, we are spirits who live in a material world, and those materials can be a window to understanding a bit about how the world works.

In any case, the basic tenets of Tierney's argument are that:
because there’s no shortage of landfill space, burying collected materials is just fine; sorting recyclables is unnecessary and expensive behavior;
the market price of an item is the best indicator of its environmental impact; recycling is an emotional placebo for collective guilt about our prosperity, and; most importantly, that natural resource savings from recycling are either questionable or trivial.

The entire piece is delivered in the form of a snarling diatribe which makes you think he has a personal vendetta against recycling in general, and specifically against those who practice the black art. For instance, "(The) recycler of household waste... is a symbol of moral blindness..." And, "...recycling devotees hit on a new solution: if people aren't willing to buy our precious garbage, we'll force them." Or simply, "Mandatory recycling programs aren't good for posterity." But it's not personal, of course. Like a cartoon carnivore, Tierney grabs hold of the topic just long enough to smash its head against a rock before casting it aside and moving on to other prey.

The result, not surprisingly, is so shot full of contradiction and intellectual slight of hand that you might just dismiss it, except for two things. One is that it was published in the New York Times, which still carries the cold weight of journalistic objectivity to its millions of readers; the other is that he cites enough numbers and sources to put a veneer of credibility over his most absurd claims. In other words, it's just believable enough to do real damage.

Tierney estimates the cost of the New York recycling collection program, for example, based on extrapolation from the behavior of a single University student. He points out that the student is a "neutral observer" because he has "no strong feelings about recycling", and then goes on to say that the eight minutes a week it took the student to sort recyclables translates to a real cost of $792 per ton, and that the one square foot of space that the recyclables took up in his apartment is equivalent to $2,000 per ton more.

This calculation misses the basic point that people in New York, and across the country, are making when they choose to recycle. People are tired of not having a choice about whether to participate in the destruction of the natural world. They don't need a law, or an environmentalist, to tell them that their daily actions are wasteful and damaging, they know this at a visceral level. So the vast majority of people choose to participate in recycling programs when they are made available, not because of any cost savings or economic incentive, but because it conveys deeply held values.

In another choice instance, Tierney argues on the topic of environmental impacts from primary resource extraction that, "Saving a tree is a mixed blessing. When there's less demand for virgin wood pulp, timber companies are likely to sell some of their tree farms - maybe to condominium developers." The implication here is that we should buy and dispose of more paper... to keep tree farms in business. The larger issue of preserving natural forests, which are vastly superior to tree farms in terms of biodiversity and rainfall absorption, not to mention aesthetic beauty, is not discussed.

With logic like the above, he could just as well argue that the real cost of groceries is $500 per bag, because of the "rent" needed to cover the cost of shelf space, or that educating children is a "mixed blessing" because some of them might turn out to be clever criminals. The fact that the Times' editors failed to catch or correct even this sort of bizarre argument perhaps accounts for the flood of letters to the editor which the article attracted. Over 2,500 letters poured in, the vast majority of them outraged and offended by the piece, more than in response to any other article in the history of the NY Times magazine.

In trying to understand just how the magazine could have gotten so far wrong with this article, it becomes clear that Tierney didn't spend enough time thinking about the issue to understand what trash is. If one is going to try and comprehend the stuff, much less influence national materials policy by writing about it publicly, it's necessary to get beyond the view that starts at the curb and ends at the landfill.

Today's garbage is in fact the exact same set of materials that we purchased as commodities and products just weeks or hours ago. And of course the commodities and products are the same set of materials that were manufactured from materials delivered by the primary extractive industries: mining, timber, petroleum and agriculture. This is the scale that Tierney fails to emphasize: the connection between and environmental impacts from resource extraction, manufacturing, transportation, consumption and disposal, which are the key elements one needs to address with any thoughtful materials policy.

There is a direct line correlation between each ton of municipal solid waste (MSW) and approximately 61 tons of waste from primary extractive industry and manufacturing. For the roughly 210 million tons of MSW the US generates each year, we generate an additional 7.6 billion tons of industrial waste, and 1.5 billion tons of mining waste, 3.2 billion tons of oil and gas, electric utility and cement kiln wastes and .5 billion tons of metal processing waste. The recycling mandates Tierney disparages result in overall system efficiency not because they save landfill space, but because they ensure more thoughtful consideration of the value of material that was previously wasted.

Of course Tierney emphasizes that it simply doesn't make economic sense to recycle everything, and on the surface he's right. But he ignores so many economic fundamentals like the massive subsidies underlying primary resource extraction, the fact that 73% of MSW is organic and therefore compostable, and the newly emerging economies of scale in recycling, which is a brand new industry (at least in the post WWII era - but that’s another story).

Recycling of MSW has increased 60% in the United States between 1990 and 1996, from 33.9 million tons to 56.3 million tons per year, directly as a result of diversion mandates. This has resulted in oversupply of many material types, and periods of depressed and volatile pricing. But it has also resulted in massive investment in new collection technology for recyclables (which can eliminate altogether the household sorting Tierney complains about) and in new manufacturing plants and upgrades which will consume vast quantities of recyclable materials and increase price stability over time.

In short, we are in a transition period of enormous consequence, which springs directly from a pent up desire on the part of most citizens to contribute to environmental betterment. When recycling required a special trip to a recycling center, few people were able to fit it into stressful and busy lives; when curbside recycling gave it a level playing field (by making it as easy as "throwing away" the same materials) nearly everyone participated. But to criticize this good and decent effort, one of the true American environmental success stories of the last decade, on economic grounds is purposefully confrontational.

In order to understand the economics of recycling you have to have some starting point, and some basis of comparison. The starting point, as I referred to earlier, is the point where raw materials in the form of ore, trees, oil, or farm products are extracted from the Earth. In the USA, we have been providing subsidy for primary extraction since the mid to late 1800's through mechanisms such as the 1872 Mining Law which allows mining companies to acquire mineral rights on public lands for as little as $2.50 per acre, below cost timber sales which provide public dollars to timber companies for construction of logging roads in National Forests, and Resource Depletion Tax Credits for the oil and gas industry which they have the gall to actually call by the right name.

The theory behind these corporate welfare programs was twofold: one was to settle the West. This has been accomplished. The other was the idea that cheaper raw inputs to the system of production would result in cheaper goods and services for everyone. This has also been accomplished, to the point where the price signals from the marketplace which should indicate the environmental impact of a particular item are next to meaningless in this regard. There are so many "externalities" in the financial equation that it's a miracle recycling can occur at all. The fact that it has succeeded despite the artificially cheap pricing of the production system is huge testimony to the inherent value of the materials themselves.

In fact, the value of not wasting perfectly good materials is so potent a concept that recycling succeeds against artificially cheap virgin materials and against a fully capitalized system of garbage collection, burying and burning. This is critical to understand: that while the cost of garbage collection and disposal is framed in Tierney"s article as a fixed cost that must be borne by each citizen and business without question, recycling is treated as a sentimental luxury, and composting is not addressed at all.

In this regard, Tierney is reflecting the entrenched pricing and incentive structure which impedes further resource conservation progress. Privatized municipal collection contracts typically guarantee rates of return for providing disposal service and provide much higher risk, lower rates of return for providing recycling or composting service.

What's worse, contracts for collection service ignore altogether the most critical element of a sustainable materials policy: waste reduction. Waste reduction, also known as resource efficiency, has to do with the notion of accomplishing tasks using less material inputs. And while at least a few energy utility contracts have rewarded investment in energy efficiency with good results, garbage contracts do not similarly reward investment in materials efficiency. For now, waste reduction is left to the odd admonishment from a billboard or TV ad from some mid-level branch of the beaurocracy telling you not to be so wasteful.

When I'm asked what sort of waste reduction program we would see if incentives mirrored the hierarchy for material handling now in law (ie. reduce, reuse, recycle and then throw it in a hole or set it on fire), of course I have pet programs I think make a lot of sense. But the real answer is that we don't know, because it hasn't been tried. Imagine a municipal garbage contract that paid an 8% rate of return on investment in garbage collection and landfilling, a 10% rate of return on investment in recycling, and a 12% rate of return on investment in waste reduction programs which achieve cost per ton equal to or better than recycling costs. Under this sort of scheme, we'd see the creativity of the private sector harnessed in service of sustainability.

As I pause for a moment to wipe the froth from my beard, I realize that I'm not going to be able to take on each of the vacuous and torrid swipes at recycling that make up Tierney's article. He gets it wrong so consistently, and so obstinately that a point for point swordfight is simply too much for someone who has to work for a living. Like the father said when he found his toddler in the bucket of tar, "We'd as soon have another one as try and clean this one up." Nonetheless, there are two last piles of goo I need to sweep up before leaving off here. One has to do with landfills, and the other with environmental education for our kids.

On the subject of landfills, which, with typical lowest common denominator emphasis, Tierney insists on calling "dumps", his main point is that any town should be willing to accept a huge landfill nearby for the right payoff. Once again, logic gets mixed with babble in such a way that the reader is sure to miss the larger picture.

The logical part is that price signals do, of course matter. When he describes the New York residential trash collection pricing mechanism, in which costs for service are part of an overarching property tax bill, he is absolutely right when he states that this "hidden price" cannot influence behavior. Furthermore, he describes the beneficial results of incremental pricing, also known as "progressive can rates" in cities like Minneapolis, San Francisco and Seattle. In these cases, households pay a flat rate for a basic level of service, and are charged extra for a larger can or cart, or for a second one. When people pay for each increment of waste they produce, they have to be somewhat thoughtful about their behavior, and often do set out less material per home per month.

He concludes from this example, however, that incremental pricing would reduce the amount of recycling, because people would continue to sort high value aluminum and perhaps cardboard, but wouldn't be willing to sort low value mixed paper or plastics. Of course, in modern curbside collection programs, it isn't necessary for each household to sort one type of paper from another, or one type of container from another. The sorting is done at highly automated Materials Recovery Facilities, and customers are offered forms of collection which make it as easy to toss the recycling as it is to toss the trash. The crucial point is that once a recycling collection and processing system is in place, the incremental cost of adding additional materials is not very great. Most analysis on this topic has consisted of figuring out the bulk density of a particular material, calculating the time and expense of collecting a certain weight, and extrapolating cost per ton. The real world situation is that these materials are never collected by themselves, but as part of an overall recycling stream. This means that even relatively low value material can be effectively diverted from landfilling and put to productive use.

When he finally gets to the landfill, Tierney states that garbage is, "not a moral issue but... an economic commodity", but then goes on to describe the long distance hauling of huge volumes of New York trash to a rural community in West Virginia as a "mutually beneficial transaction." Let me be absolutely clear: larger, more regional landfills which can afford higher quality environmental protections because of the fees they can charge are a far better alternative than small local landfills that cannot afford such protections. (Such as multiple liner systems, on-site waste water treatment facilities, and methane gas-to-energy generators.) The US has closed over 80% of all its landfills over the past 30 years, due to enforcement of stricter EPA regulation, moving from approximately 20,000 facilities to just over 3,000 in that time. This means, of course, that the remaining 3,000 are larger and more regional, but much safer, than the 20,000 they replace. Landfills are absolutely necessary for the foreseeable future as an element of an overall integrated waste management system, and activists who fight against the siting of all such facilities, on "principle", are impeding a more responsible alternative for handling of material which is not recovered or recycled. But landfills should be seen for what they are: a necessary short term solution, a symbol of profligate wastefulness, and a poor alternative to productive reuse, remanufacturing and pollution prevention approaches.

To argue, as Tierney does, that everything;s just peachy because the landfill in West Virginia pays a substantial "host fee" to the local community reflects the kind of shallow thinking which has led us to the current level of environmental devastation. The host fee itself represents a reasonable political compromise: the local community approved a use permit for a private sector company to locate, construct and operate an environmentally responsible facility which will have some negative impacts in exchange for money which the community can use to create some positive impacts. But neither the fee, nor the landfill itself address the question of materials policy.

My friend Bill Shireman has described the industrial economy over the past 125 years as a kind of a chute: drawing raw materials in one end, and accelerating them, in the form of goods, services, and ultimately wastes. The imperative of the market system has been to put more and more material, more and more quickly, down the chute. On the other side of Bill Clinton's famous bridge to the 21st century however, lies a world in which economic growth can no longer be a function of how quickly we can consume our natural capital. The new imperative will be to see how smart we can be about not having to consume such quantities in the first place, through exponential increases in resource efficiency. Resource efficiency, in turn, will be the result of replacing materials and energy with information and intelligence; a revolution which is already occurring across many industries as our ability to manipulate information increases geometrically.

Which brings me to my final point. The next generation, which is growing up with an innate ability to use computers and manipulate information, will have a pivotal influence on the planetary environment. It is absolutely critical that they be fully conscious of the magnified abilities which technology has bestowed on us over the past hundred or so years to fundamentally damage ecosystems and cause extinctions. Technology has doubled lifespan in the industrialized world (which is today 78 for women and 72 for men in the US - up from between 40 and 50 at the turn of the century), and technology has immeasurably improved quality of life for millions of us. But at this juncture it has become clear that technology has accelerated our impact on the fundamental natural and biological systems which keep us alive to a point of real and present danger.

The resource efficiency demanded by the growing world population and the dwindling resource base must become a business opportunity. Instead of emphasizing the conflict between economic incentives and environmental outcomes, as Tierney does, we need to be creative enough to integrate our daily business decisions with our environmental values. We need to take advantage of every opportunity to make money which can protect, sustain, or restore the natural environment.

Perhaps the "golden celestial crown" missed by the muckraker is found here on Earth after all... Perhaps he was seeing it at his feet, amongst the scraps and the decay. Perhaps, once again, the secret is not to be found by gazing up at the heavens, but by paying attention, by studying, the things which make up our lives. Rather than Bunyan, our children might heed Whitman who wrote: "Behold this compost. Behold it well."



Originally published in Ecofables/Ecoscience Vol. 1, No. 2, Summer 1998. An occasional publication of the Center for Conservation Biology, Stanford University.

See also: "Anti-Recycling Myths" at the Environmental Defense site.

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Updated March 15, 2005