"Recycling is Garbage", "Recycling is Waste", etc.

Sometimes, when I am not sure what I should be doing in the morning, I google search terms that are the opposite of what I'm supposed to be doing. I wind up meeting people online, like H. Sterling Burnett, and Betsy Hart of Chicago, who publish editorials dissuading people from participating in their local recycling programs. John Tierney and Lynn Scarlet created a ruckus in the mid 1990s by arguing recycling was wasteful. The Freakonomics guy Dubner made quite a stir on Good Morning America by suggesting that recycling is only worthwhile, if (and only if) the item to be recycled will disappear from your lawn.

I threw his Freakonomics book on my lawn the next morning, and it was still there at nightfall.

Then I wondered, which is MORE likely, that my bundle of newspaper and cardboard will get picked up from my lawn in a stack, or that they will get picked up for free inside my garbage bag? Then I read in USGS.gov that the USA will probably have to mine landfills by the middle of this century to retrieve metals (especially in electronics) which we stupidly buried (how do you say "duh" in Greek or Latin?).

The point is, you have to think logically and not dogmatically. It is good to be challenged, and we have to be sharp and on our toes when these skeptics challenge our recycling system.

Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living for man.”
(Plato, Apology)

Dubner's and others comments about recycling being wasteful are, most often, contradicted by the free market, which is his main source of data. Tierney and Scarlett made a valid case that secondary materials (recyclables) should be managed in a free market. They just never made the case that virgin materials are collected in a free or fair market. If they compared RCRA 1976 (which, under EPA regulates recycling) with the General Mining Act of 1872 (which, under Department of the Interior, regulates mining and forestry), the "recycling subsidies" would have looked more like start up costs, or at worst a "market correction". In a truly free market, where recycling and mining are equally unregulated, recycling rates soar (Southern Communist China probably providing the best case study in that free market).

Recycling rates increase in time of war, time of want, and are highest in places like Guangzhou and Cairo and Mumbai. Waste increases (and recycling rates decline) with affluence. Complaints about the waste of a second (recycling) truck on the street? Remind them that toilet paper is made of recycled paper, and if we assume we are going to keep using it, then there must be another truck replacing the recycling truck, collecting timber and cellulose. The industry association, American Forest and Paper Institute, is a big advocate of people participating in existing recycling programs.

However, I think that some of us recyclers have a dogmatic streak which probably leaves us ill-equipped to nip Dubners arguments in the bud. Simply expressing shock or indignation probably encourages the critics in their belief that recycling needs to be challenged. I personally think that "Zero Waste" is a theory that gained advocates relative to states meeting their recycling roles ("Zero Waste" offers more job security than "46% diversion"). Not that I oppose "Zero waste" as a concept, but if there is a limited amount of "eco-dollars" in the economy, and the last bit of waste is the most expensive to eliminate (the last soda can on the bottom of the sea), that it seems likely that something - rain forests, carbon, toxics, ivory trade, etc. - would be a higher priority to spend the last eco-dollar on than the last piece of waste pried from the most unwilling hand. "Zero Waste" as a goal is like "zero death" at a hospital, hard to disagree with but kind of a millstone around the nurse's necks in the real world. I don't know, it just sounds like what the Dubners portray recyclers as... out of touch eco-Quixotes.

Perhaps we can convince the critics first that the best time to challenge recycling is before a program starts (it is arguable whether collecting the last bottle from the most remote island is a good use of limited environmental resources). Subterfuge of participation in existing recycling programs is just ornery. When they make an argument not to participate in an existing program, recycling trucks perform less efficiently, and more lumber trucks have to go into the forests to cut timber for cellulose.

What I really hope is that the up and coming generation of environmentalists will approach the health of the environment the way we approach the study of human health. Western medicine is great, but it only got where it is by getting it out of the hands of organized religion and into the university system. It began in alchemy, and by feeding King Edward of England spoonfuls of liquid mercury because those really improved his bowel movements. What saved Western Medicine was dialectic and scientific method, which thrives on argument and defense of arguments with statistics and analysis.

Environmentalists like me get off to a better start in the morning with a strong cup of coffee and a challenge on the table. We recycle better when we don't succumb to group-think, platitudes, and back slapping. I am a better man when I fly back and forth between red states (sweet home Ozark Mountains of Arkansas) and blue states (sweet home Green Mountains of Vermont). I hope that by challenging well meaning colleagues like Greenpeace and BAN.org, they will see benefits, and correct me when I'm wrong.

Socrates: "Well I am certainly wiser than this man. It is only too likely that neither of us has any knowledge to boast of; but he thinks that he knows something which he does not know, whereas I am quite conscious of my ignorance. At any rate it seems that I am wiser than he is to this small extent, that I do not think that I know what I do not know.”
(Plato, Apology)

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