You pull out that jar of old spaghetti sauce from the back of the refrigerator. You find green fuzzy stuff all around the inside rim, take a whiff and almost get knocked over. It’s another science experiment without a hypothesis—part of everyday life. As usual, you’re in a hurry. What do you do? Conscientiously wash it out and place it in the recycling bin? Or just toss it into the garbage and get on with the day? We’ve all been there—experiencing quiet moments of pride and shame as we shape our relationship with the environment.
The answers aren’t easy. Some would say it’s actually better for the environment to use the garbage can. Although modern recycling has blossomed from a fringe ideal of “granola people” into a conventional practice, it’s recently going through an identity crisis. In the United States, it has become one of the most hotly debated environmental issues of the day.
The U.S. is fertile ground for such a debate. It has only five percent of the world’s population, yet generates 19 percent of its wastes. The U.S. uses 20 percent of the world’s metals, 24 percent of its energy and 25 percent of its fossil fuels. Yet among the 20 most industrially advanced countries, it ranks only 15th in paper recycling efforts and 19th in glass recycling. Some 96 percent of U.S. plastic, and 50 percent of its paper, goes into landfills. Mexico—not exactly a bastion of environmental awareness—recycles more glass than the U.S.
Only a decade ago, a surge of local government concern about polluting landfills, rising costs of waste disposal and hazardous incinerators spurred the creation of many local ordinances supporting recycling. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established a voluntary guidance program with a goal of 25 percent recycling of municipal solid waste. Most states are working toward meeting that goal, and public enthusiasm is high: A 1995 Gallup Poll found 73 percent of the American people favoring home-based recycling. Since 1970, voluntary curbside recycling programs have grown from just two to 7,000 today.
Nonetheless, 95 percent of all waste plastics and two-thirds of all waste paper still go unrecycled. But the recycling industry has been steadily maturing: It now diverts almost 24 percent of the nation’s municipal waste to productive uses. In 1995, 62 percent of the 100 billion aluminum cans produced annually were returned for recycling.
A not-so-obvious benefit of recycling is its potential to reduce our fossil fuels consumption, because oil is refined to create plastic resins for such products as soda bottles, food wrappers and throw-away cameras.
Recycling also has aesthetic value, reducing the amount of litter in communities. “The Bottle Bill [which requires deposits on recyclable bottles] has been one of the most successful litter reduction measures,” points out Allen Hershkowitz, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) (see Conversations this issue). Indeed, in a 1996 white paper, the Container Recycling Institute proposed “expanding bottle bills for the 90s,” in part by including the “new age” beverage category-fruit drink, tea and water containers, currently exempt from the rules. Sales of the trendy drinks, which are mainly packaged in single-serve bottles. have grown 150 percent since 1991.
But just when environmentalists thought the idea of recycling was well rooted and the challenge was mainly logistics, broad-stroke criticism of the practice has emerged-seriously threatening the achievements made to date.
Perhaps the most mordant attack was in a June 30, 1996 New York Times Magazine cover story entitled “Recycling is Garbage,” in which writer John Tierney stirred up a cauldron of doubts about every facet of recycling. His thesis: recycling “squanders money and good will, and doesn’t do much for the environment either.” The piece drew more mail than anything the magazine had ever published, mostly from outraged recycling defenders.
Like education and police protection, recycling may cost money, but its strategic value remains.
Public officials have already begun to translate such devil’s advocatism into anti-recycling policy. Only a few days after the Times article, New York’s Mayor Rudolph Giuliani announced his intention to roll back the city’s recycling program, reducing pickups from once a week to every other week. He told reporters that recycling may be more of a nuisance than it’s worth. But, as the Times itself noted in a later newspaper editorial, it actually costs the city less ($10 to $40 per ton) to deliver its wastes to recyclers than it does to dump it in its own Staten Island Fresh Kills landfill ($42 per ton).
In response to the backlash, both the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and NRDC marshalled forces and swiftly published lengthy rebuttals to each point in the Times piece. EDF Senior Scientist Richard Denison charged that Tierney’s “gravely inaccurate” piece “unquestioningly repeats the claims of a group of [anti-recycling] think tanks and consultants.” Said Denison in an interview, “My beef is the poor journalism that went into the piece. He used a series of arguments that have been around for a long time, and have no credibility. But because of where they were published, they gained a prominence they wouldn’t have otherwise.”
According to Hershkowitz, the Times article drew heavily from ideas of the Reason Foundation, a West coast Libertarian group that favors certain industries that get hurt by recycling. “John Tierney mostly lifted his stuff from Reason Foundation positions,” says Hershkowitz, “and he did a terrible disservice—basically plaguing environmental progress.”
Hershkowitz has actually made his rebuttal to Tierney somewhat personal, calling the former Science magazine reporter a “tool” of various special interest groups. David Morris, vice president of the Washington-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance, agrees, seeing the article as part of a conservative attack on “the American people.” The article, Morris says, “is calling Americans stupid for recycling.”
Tierney says he doesn’t mind criticism, but objects to “hysterical” conspiracy-mongering. “Hershkowitz is constantly launching these ad hominem attacks,” says Tierney. “He even called me a tool of the plastics industry. I guess it must be easier to call names than address the issues. People like Allen Hershkowitz are doing an incredible disservice by fomenting hysteria about recycling. They’re scaring people unnecessarily.”
Tierney, who says The Reason Foundation was just one of many groups whose work he cited, says that “the three Rs” have become a kind of religion, and that recycling is “a sacrament in that religion. My point is that it should be voluntary. Sure, there’s a social cost to filling up landfills, but there’s also a social cost to recyclin
g, in terms of the enormous amount of people’s time it soaks up. I think people matter more than garbage does, and I see kids wasting time worrying about garbage, when they could be doing something useful.”
At The Reason Foundation itself, analysts say they see shades of gray, not the black and white picture conjured by Tierney and Hershkowitz. Lynn Scarlett, executive director of The Reason Public Policy Institute, says she spoke to Tierney “on a number of occasions” during the writing of his piece, but nonetheless disagrees with its conclusion. “I don’t agree with blanket statements,” she says, “and Tierney’s piece suffered from the all-or-nothing scenario that has so characterized the recycling debate. Our analysis shows that in some cities, recycling offers a cost-competitive option, and in others it doesn’t. But cost isn’t the only issue. Tierney was trying to say that much of the current recycling activity is the result of mandates-and 41 states do have either mandates or goals-but on the local level, where citizens participate, recycling is largely a matter of choice. Most folks participate because that’s what they prefer to do.”
The “recycling is bad” position gets only lukewarm support from the industry-supported Keep America Beautiful. Colleen Barton, manager of solid waste programming, says the Times article “made the valid point that recycling is not the sole solution to solid waste management. Communities need to decide if it’s right for them. They need to educate their citizens and get commitments. I also think you have to understand the important role the commercial sector plays. More than half the recycling in the U.S. is coming from industry, which was doing it long before curbside recycling began.” Barton says that even if the U.S. achieves its interim goal of 30 percent overall recycling, “there would still be 156 million tons of garbage every year that would need to be managed.”
Apples and Oranges
The biggest recycling debate that rages today is whether it is worth the cost. The price of recycling is hard to compare to that of not recycling—especially since simply throwing away trash results in hidden expenditures and immeasurable risks. As Pat Franklin, executive director of the Washington-based Container Recycling Institute, points out, “There’s no free ride with what we do with out post-consumer waste-there will be a cost associated with it. But you have to add in the social costs-what is the cost of spewing polluted air into the environment?”
Although some argue that landfilling is more economical—and it may appear so on the surface—the dissimilar costs and benefits of recycling and landfilling make them almost impossible to compare across the board. The actual dollar amounts required for landfilling vary widely (by as much as 300 percent!), depending on the region and technology employed. In some cases recycling is less cost competitive; in others much more.
Tierney argues that landfill capacity in the U.S. is plentiful. “Environmentalists always think we’re about to run out of things,” he says. “But in fact there’s an enormous amount of empty land available. Providing landfill space for 1,000 years of America’s garbage would require an area only one tenth the size of all the open rangeland in the U.S. If recycling hadn’t happened, there’d simply be more landfills.”
Like education and police protection, recycling may cost money, but its strategic value remains.
But environmentalists say that the success of recycling itself has caused this increased availability (a fact that Tierney acknowledged in an interview). But simply having the open space available does not solve the garbage crisis. As Scarlett points out, “In a purely physical sense, we’re not running out of landfill space, but there remains substantial public opposition to siting them. Because of that, cities are faced with rethinking how they handle waste.” And even as they have more room, landfills are diminishing in number, partly because they have difficulty meeting environmental regulations. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established that U.S landfills release hazardous air emissions and threaten surface and groundwater supplies, and “contribute significantly to pollution that may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.”
Two out of three landfills in the U.S. do not have linings to protect water supplies from contamination. The EPA has documented many cases of acute injury and death from fires and explosions of municipal landfill gas. Local communities, concerned about pollution, increasingly refuse to host landfills, and their true costs depend not only on dollars and cents, but on real and perceived environmental risks.
Tierney, however, thinks that the problem is that landfills are over-regulated. “The regulations tend to kill off the smaller operators,” he says. “You have to be really big to comply with the strict laws.” He suggests locating more lightly regulated landfills in rural areas, where few people live. (This practice has, of course, led to the charge of “environmental racism,” because when landfills “go rural,” they seek out poorer areas where the opposition has little money or clout.)
Critics also argue that the complex process of picking up and delivering paper, cans and bottles is a drain on city funds. But recycling proponents say that collection systems need only to mature. As local recycling markets develop, recyclables are likely to increase in value; they already provide revenue for cities in many cases. NRDC points out that mixed garbage does not—and will never—offer this economic benefit or potential. Like education and police protection, recycling may cost money, but its strategic value remains.
A common complaint is that recycling trucks and infrastructure cause more pollution than garbage pick-up and transportation. Yet most recycling facilities are closer to urban centers than landfills, shortening the distance trucks travel.
About 2,800 communities in the U.S. have instituted “pay-as-you-throw” recycling systems-in which consumers pay a per-bag fee for garbage disposal, encouraging them to consume less. Some have argued that pay-as-you-throw systems should replace prevailing recycling programs across the board.
But according to Franklin, this approach is a complement to, not a replacement for, comprehensive recycling programs. “It’s an incentive, and it’s definitely one solution, but millionaires will just say, ‘What do I care?’ and throw out as much as ever.” The New York City Department of Sanitation considered the process in three separate instances, and found it too cumbersome for a congested city—where, for instance, tall buildings combine the recyclables of several households in a single garbage chute, and make individual accounting difficult.
The American style of recycling places resp
onsibility on consumers and municipalities to manage waste—which some believe limits the potential for environmental protection. Some recycling proponents contend that consumer product manufacturers should be required to build waste management right into their products—a concept that is now policy in Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands.
The recycling industry has been steadily maturing: It now diverts almost 24 percent of the nation’s municipal waste to productive uses.
In Germany, for instance, where a “polluter pays” program was established in 1993, the volume of packaging generated by manufacturers has decreased and the proportion of beverages sold in refillable containers has increased. The program, called “Green Dot” for the emblem that complying companies place on their products, assigns full life-cycle responsibility to manufacturers for their packaging. In its first year (1991 to 1992), packaging consumption in Germany was reduced by 500,000 metric tons. The program has had problems-most acutely, it has been plagued by manufacturers that use the Green Dot but renege on the mandated fees. Critics charge that that the half-million-ton reduction in municipal waste sounds impressive, but amounts to only a 1.7 percent drop in the country’s overall waste stream.
Just as the solution to sustainable energy production includes energy conservation, so does the municipal waste issue hinge on source reduction (minimizing the amount of garbage created in the first place) and use extension (making products last longer).
Making manufacturers responsible for the cost of garbage would compel them to reduce packaging. Until such policy is in motion, argues NRDC, “companies can choose to market a diamond ring in a refrigerator box and not worry about the consequences.”
As a general rule, U.S. laws are weak in support of recycling. No federal law requires recycling of municipal waste (although in 1988 the EPA announced a voluntary goal of recycling 25 percent). And tax policies are biased toward extractive, or virgin, industries. According to the EPA, federal tax subsidies are hefty for virgin timber, mineral and energy industries, and “may reduce the incentives slightly to switch from virgin to recycled paper production.”
TheTimes‘John Tierney says that recycling may be “the most wasteful activity in modern America: a waste of time and money, a waste of human and natural resources.” Franklin of the Container Recycling Institute thinks that Tierney needs to see the whole picture. “Too many people are using the word ‘waste’ as a noun, when it really should be a verb. It’s not just about the stuff we throw away, but the waste-of energy and resources-that’s all around us. I think Tierney got sucked into a narrow, waste management viewpoint on garbage.” With some prodding, Tierney does admit that “polluters should pay for the full cost of the waste they impose on the public.” But, he adds, recycling has social costs too. “People buy remote controls and electric garage door openers to save time; why should they waste it on recycling?”
Tierney does make some valid points. But while recycling is experiencing the kind of birth pangs that are to be expected in any vast, new human enterprise, it can only be viewed as a stunning success. As EDF points out, “At the current national rate of about 26 percent, recycling saves enough energy to supply the needs of nine million U.S. households.” Recycling issues aren’t easy to sort out—and on both sides there are arguments driven more by emotion than logic. Our flagging environment demands, however, that when it comes to deciding where to toss that rank spaghetti jar, reuse still makes more sense than waste.