John Tierney’s effrontery with his “The Reign of Recycling” piece in the New York Times (10/3/15) has once again become evident with his feeble attempt to lay waste to the recycling industry, this after his original 1996 piece in the New York Times Magazine, “Recycling is Garbage.”
“Whether it’s by national newspapers, network TV, or conservative think tanks, attacking recycling has long been a popular way to make headlines. As we recycling professionals know, the overwhelming majority of these attacks are based either on over simplifications of complex environmental issues, or on political philosophies out of step with mainstream America. The sound bites are hard to beat: ‘Recycling is a waste of time. There is no landfill crisis. Recycling doesn’t save trees’. These statements are both short and provocative–in other words, perfect for the news media. The idea of bashing recycling is so compelling that ‘the evils of recycling mania’ is even used as an example of how to get publicity by being contrarian in Jay Levenson’s popular ‘Guerilla Marketing’ series (National Recycling Coalition-NRC, 2000).”
Attached and at nrcrecycles.org is a fact sheet produced in 2000 where we at the NRC “recommended a five-part strategy to respond nationally and locally to attacks on recycling. Since most decisions about recycling programs are made at the local level, we suggest that you spend most of your energy responding locally, even to national attacks. We also offer some sound bites of our own in response to ten of the most frequent attacks on recycling. These can be used in your letters to the editor, talking points for interviews with reporters, and speech notes for local leaders (NRC, 2000).” Even though we’ve extracted these quotes from a document NRC developed 15 years ago, many points still resonate now. Today, we understand even more than we did in 2000 about how misinformed attacks undermine the investments, job creation, tax contribution, pollution reduction, and other benefits of recycling.
The National Recycling Coalition
The NRC, Inc. is a nonprofit organization formed in 1978 focused on the reduction of waste and sound management practices for raw materials. We work to maintain a prosperous and productive American recycling system that is committed to the conservation of natural resources and to building a foundation for an environmentally sustainable economy. We are unique in that we represent and facilitate activities among businesses and manufacturers, environmental groups, industry trade associations, nonprofit organizations, and representatives from all levels of government. At NRC’s core is a multitude of affiliated state-level recycling organizations. Our network extends across waste reduction, reuse, recycling, and composting activities.
We understand recycling and the sustainable management of materials.
First Hand Experience
Personally, I started my first recycling program in 1981. I have nearly two decades of experience working in an internationally recognized regional solid waste management system that included a “state-of-the-art” landfill, waste-to-energy facility, transfer and trucking operations, and centralized composting and recycling facilities. I’ve helped establish sustainable materials management and recycling programs in the US, Caribbean, and throughout Central and South America. These are the types of facilities and programs journalist Tierney from the Times talks about from afar.
Unlike a maverick journalist like Tierney writing from the bleachers, I’m no different–and my experiences are no different–than the thousands of others represented by the NRC who directly face 24/7 challenges about how to deal with our discarded materials. Tierney is an aberration, one who did all of us a disservice, but he also provided us an opportunity to articulate why what we do is so important.
Initial Flaws of Tierney’s Case
Tierney’s erroneous depiction does not describe the recycling in America that we know. In fact, most American communities have found positive economic success in administering recycling programs that require minimal sorting. Those of us in this industry, including our colleagues at the City of San Francisco, Institute for Local Self Reliance (ILSR), Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), Mid-America Council of Recycling Officials, Northeast Recycling Council, Recycling Partnership, Reuse Institute, Solid Waste Association of North America, Southeast Recycling Development Council, US Composting Council, Zero Waste International Alliance, Zero Waste USA, and many others will continue to do an effective job of dispensing with Tierney’s half-truths, non-supported “research,” and specious arguments. We all know that the premise of his misinformation campaign–that recycling is both economically and environmentally ill advised–is a non sequitur.
Tierney wields an accusation of motivated reasoning, that “we” have blindly recycled based on emotional irrationality. If he and the Times had done appropriate due diligence, we know they would have found that recycling is an issue that resonates and is economically defensible throughout the US, not just among the recycling acolytes of tony Park Slope in Brooklyn or San Francisco, but in cities like Indianapolis, where a national recycling conference (organized by Resource Recycling) was held the week before his article appeared in the Times. Had Tierney attended, he could have met with recycling businesses and others who employ some of the estimated 471,587 direct and indirect jobs, and responsible for at least $106 billion in annual economic activity in the US associated with recycling (ISRI). He could have talked with members of state and local governments who would have described their successes and failures. Instead, Tierney continued to paint his recycling canvas with one brush and one color.
Clearly, we all know that if recycling were economically counter-productive, the industries we collectively represent would have closed their doors long ago. We have been in this business for more than a century and have survived even without Tierney’s inaccurate economic pronouncements. In fact, our industry is as large as the American automobile industry (EPA), and many businesses are now saving millions of dollars by focusing on reducing, reusing, recycling, and pursuing Zero Waste principles.
Particularly farfetched is his assertion that we should calculate the value of reducing our carbon emissions with how much carbon is comparatively offset by recycling 40,000 plastic bottles vs. the carbon dioxide (CO2) generated by one passenger on a flight to Europe. I welcome the opportunity to explore more germane comparisons with the Times and others, such as the savings of CO2 for every ton of paperboard that is recycled (over three tons), driving a car, or heating and lighting your house. In addition, “Tierney falls short in his analysis of the environmental impact of recycling. Nearly all independent studies, including those by EPA, have shown that recycling offers superior environmental benefits to landfilling and incineration. Further, utilizing recycled materials reduces energy requirements and greenhouse gas emissions in many manufacturing processes when compared to using virgin materials (ISRI).”
The Myth of the “Welcomed” Landfill
Grist.org and others have debunked much of Tierney’s vacuous and naïve comments about landfills. We need to continue to shine light on the following dark, farcical statements of his:
“A modern well-lined landfill in a rural area can have relatively little environmental impact.”
“Landfills are ‘welcomed’ in rural areas…they have plenty of greenery to buffer residents from sights and smells.”
A contention that landfills are “welcomed” in many communities seriously understates the long-term liabilities associated with landfills and other disposal facilities. It does not effectively consider important economic externality valuations, and quality of life issues. Underserved populations, including the impoverished, minorities, and others with little political power are disproportionately affected by such facilities. Tierney inexcusably looks the other way regarding the serious social and environmental justice imbalance that we know exists in all too many neighborhoods across America. Further, he ignores the fact that many of these landfills are owned by profit-driven corporations with shareholders disconnected from the host communities who are forever cursed by the trash that lies beneath them. Tierney also neglected to discuss the context of how the extraction of raw materials in many cases also leads to the decay of society and local communities, and how there are 71 tons buried along the way from mining, manufacturing, and distribution of products for every ton buried locally (ILSR). It’s inconceivable that in 2015 we still hear these tired, baseless, and offensive comments. It’s time we bring these inequities into the light.
A Tour of the Real World
I have proposed to the New York Times that they accompany me on an excursion to visit communities hosting the sparkling facilities Tierney constructs in his Utopian world. We’ll go to wonderful communities in upstate New York’s Finger Lakes Region that “host” two of the nation’s largest landfills. We’ll talk to people in these “greenery-filled” communities who can’t open their windows during the beautiful New York summer because of the rancid odor. We’ll look at the impact on roads from the never-ending train of tractor trailers taking a 12-hour round-trip carrying discarded materials from New York City to this sacred land of the Haudenosaunee, and where–among other historically significant events–the Women’s Suffrage movement started. We’ll have a serious talk about the economic hubris and carbon impact of this craziness.
We’ll then take a trip to the rural Tug Hill Region of New York where I’ll show the Times two other “state-of-the-art” landfills. More importantly, we’ll also talk to people living near these facilities. We’ll work hard to find the people forced to leave their homes when a landfill was built in their backyard. I’ll take them to another landfill in a suburban community near Albany. We’ll stop in a densely populated neighborhood directly adjacent to the landfill and I’ll explain with vivid examples what externality impacts and costs really mean.
We’ll then head to St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands to visit the only landfill on that island, and I’ll introduce them to local residents from the underserved community there tirelessly fighting to change their horrible reality (its certainly not Tierney’s Utopia). I’ll facilitate a discussion with representatives, including youth leaders, of Basura Cero (Zero Waste) in Puerto Rico, working hard to prevent a massive waste-to-energy facility from being built in Arecibo. I can’t tell you how much I look forward to the articulate and well-reasoned arguments fueling a passion and desire to preserve their community. I could take you to sites all across the US–suburban, rural, and urban–and provide many more examples of how landfills, and those in the business of trash reduce the quality of life for those living nearby.
What the Times published was an absolute affront to all these communities, and I look forward to The New York Times Company taking me up on my offer to help them reach the people who actually live near these facilities. These people will provide real-life “data” for a story. This will be a story diametrically different than one written by someone in an isolated, comfortable office far from the plume of reality real people are facing every day.
It is no shock to those of us in the trenches that segments of our industry are experiencing unique challenges these days as a result of a changing business model and increasing quality concerns. “Decreased commodity prices combined with the decision of some municipalities to collect recyclables in the same bin as waste materials affect both the economics and the technological feasibility of recycling (ISRI).” So too does the lack of a level playing field laced with the reality of subsidies on virgin materials, and the incomplete accounting of the true and full cost of disposal alternatives like landfills, waste transfer stations, and waste-to-energy (externality costs). Disposal of discarded materials-a multi-billion dollar industry-provides little societal benefit and far more societal risks than a system that capitalizes on materials as commodities generating genuine value. The same can be said for raw material extraction and processing compared to a manufacturing supply-chain utilizing recyclable materials.
It’s about Materials and Resources, not Waste
We as a commodities industry have faced issues like the cyclic nature of our markets and many other challenges in the past. We understand that we are part of an ever-changing supply and value chain. Today, like in the past, these concerns don’t indicate the demise of recycling. We can and must address ever-evolving challenges of our unique industry. “Let’s focus on what works and develop the processes and technology needed to expand recycling. Turning our backs on recycling altogether now would significantly hurt the US balance of trade, the recycling industry, the environment, and sustainable materials management. That would be a major step backward for our country (ISRI).”
We are not some haughty group, pursuing a spiritual mission of recycling because we are ignorant, or have some inside scoop and know better than everyone else. We do, however, recognize that we need to work much harder at front-of-the-pipe solutions. Tierney completely ignores the changing nature of materials and the “evolving ton,” the immense research and development around new materials–materials being designed for recycling, for the environment. He misses the boat on the nascent circular economy, and the associated role of the emerging solution of sustainable materials management. He does not address how discarded materials can help augment local economies. He ignores the inexcusable human habit of creating waste–waste, something Nature does not recognize–of “disposing” materials that have great value as commodities, not to be buried or burned.
Perilously Promoting “Disassociation”
Tierney infers that we need to make it easier for people to get rid of their “stuff.” We agree that convenience and the effective use of an individual’s time sorting materials are important considerations; however, Tierney inappropriately skirts one of our greatest challenges in this field, the increasing trend toward “disassociation.” The last thing we need to do is further separate the generator of discarded materials from the costs and realities of that place called “away”–a place that simply does not exist. (One person’s “away,” after all, is someone else’s “here.”) We do a great disservice propagating the falsehood, and propping-up ignorance around the fallacy that disposal options such as landfills and waste-to-energy facilities have minimal effects on the environment and society. The notion that disposal is economically more attractive than reducing, and developing creative reuse and repurpose programs for our materials, designing better materials, and yes, maximizing appropriate recycling and composting, is patently false.
Thinking back to when I publicly took issue with Tierney’s words in 1996, and considering his recent article, I see him to be implacable and unchangeable. His “piece relies on the intellectually dishonest tactic common in anti-environment screeds of criticizing an environmental solution for its imperfections instead of comparing to a real world alternative (Grist.org)” such as those I outlined. We need to rise above the predetermined structure of arguments the John Tierney’s of the world create for us. They give us false choices, and the debate they construct and foster is moot. We have to reframe the discussion. A shift in paradigms is needed, which Tierney’s recent diatribe clearly supports.
To that end, the NRC is solidifying a partnership with the US Environmental Protection Agency, and in the coming months will host an important meeting in New York City–the media capital of the US–to shed more truth, and talk through all these issues. In addition to people and organizations directly involved in recycling, we are inviting the New York Times and others representing a spectrum of views. Our intent is to continue accelerating the sustainable management of materials across America.
Yours in sustainable materials management,
Adjunct Professor, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry