Recycling Redux

There is nothing like a consensus on caring for the American environment, and given the impressive array of competing interests, there probably never will be. But if there's one issue on which we thought everyone agreed-from Earth First! activists in northern California to Manhattan power brokers-it's the importance of recycling.

Last summer, however, The New York Times Magazine shot a broadside across the bows of everyone who's ever carried a blue bin to the curb. “Recycling is Garbage,” the story proclaimed, as it painted a picture of abundant landfill space, alarmist environmentalists and intimidated schoolchildren. The Times piece did not go unanswered: Both the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) promptly responded with detailed critiques. Further repudiation came in the form of nearly 1,000 letters to Timesend ital editors, two thirds of them defending recycling.

In its cover story, E revisits the recycling debate and comes up with some good news. Conscientious recyclers (who spend, on average, a minute a day per household) shouldn't think they're wasting their time. As EDF points out, recycling cuts pollution and conserves both natural resources and energy. It creates jobs (10 times more per dollar invested than landfilling or incinerating), and saves manufacturing costs. And recycling integrates well with existing landfills and incinerators to flexibly meet a community's needs. As Dave Morris, vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance, puts it, “Recycling is a bottoms up, grassroots, largely voluntary and hugely popular phenomenon.”

And the statistics are there, too. Despite a U.S. recycling rate of only 26 percent, recycling annually saves enough energy to fully power nine million American homes. And, contrary to the Times, it's cost-effective. Washington, D.C. found this out in 1995, after it had canceled its recycling program to save money. Citizens groups did some investigating and reported back that, by recycling 26,000 tons of trash annually, the program had actually been saving the city $2 million a year. It was promptly reinstated.

Confounding the naysayers who proclaim that recycling has reached its limit, programs across the country continue to grow. In Washington State, both Seattle and King Counties are now approaching 50 percent recycling levels. New Jersey is doing even better, with a 56 percent level.

There were just two curbside recycling programs in the country at the time of the first Earth Day in 1970. Now there are 7,000, with new programs being added every day. As the Times itself said in a newspaper editorial after the magazine's piece appeared, “The balance favoring recycling is actually likely to grow.” Here at E, where we've been recycling since the magazine was launched in 1990, we agree.

We would like to thank The Martin Foundation for a grant in support of research and publication costs for our recycling coverage, which will continue with Part II, a look at source reduction, in our next issue. Our gratitude is also due to The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation for a recent grant in support of E's circulation-building efforts. We would also like to thank The Elinor Paterson Baker Trust, The Ettinger Foundation, The Wray Trust, and The Rhonda Fleming Mann Foundation for recent grants.