Fri, 22 Jan 1999 16:20:25 -0500

I was glad to hear about GRN and your new listserv...

Enclosed is a belated response to the NY Times article; I've submitted it
to Dollars & Sense magazine, but they may not have space for it -- other
suggestions for publication are welcome. Meanwhile, please circulate
freely to anyone who's interested.

Frank Ackerman
Global Development and Environment Institute
Tufts University


Frank Ackerman

The crisis is over. You can relax, stop recycling, and throw it all
in the trash. In fact, you'll save money and help the environment if you

Or so you learned, if you read (and believed) the New York Times
magazine on June 30. Staff writer John Tierney launched a full-scale
assault on America's favorite environmental activity, recycling of
household waste. Coming just a few pages after a seemingly unrelated
cultural column entitled "Stop Making Sense", Tierney's article, headlined
"Recycling is Garbage", challenges all the major beliefs of contemporary
recycling advocates. In the end, he recommends America's favorite
economic panacea: more reliance on the free market.

Tierney is just the latest voice to join the anti-recycling chorus.
A lengthy article by Jeff Bailey in the Wall Street Journal, reprinted in
the Reader's Digest, raised similar charges last year. A number of
business-oriented economists, consultants, and industry executives have
also criticized the popular and ever-expanding commitment to recycling.
Environmental advocacy of all varieties has faced right-wing, free-market
critics, and recycling is no exception.

The anti-recyclers have a more plaintive, defensive tone than other
anti-green crusaders. In the 1990s, at a time when many environmentalists
have been struggling to protect past gains, recycling has been spreading
rapidly across the country. By 1994, more than 7200 recycling programs
provided regular curbside collection to more than 40% of all U.S.
households; almost all of these programs were new since 1988, when the
first comprehensive survey appeared. One study estimated that 21% of all
municipal solid waste was recycled or composted in 1992, up from 10% just
seven years earlier.

Opinion polls confirm that virtually everyone believes in recycling.
A clear majority of households say that they participate in recycling; no
other environmental activity approaches this level of involvement.
According to Jerry Powell of Resource Recycling magazine, in the first
week of November 1992 more adults participated in recycling than voted.
"Recycling," says Powell, "is more popular than democracy."


Regardless of its popularity, is recycling a mistake? Before turning
to a closer look at Tierney's arguments, there are three general points to
keep in mind -- three keys to a progressive understanding of the
anti-recycling message. First, some of the anti-recyclers' facts are
simply wrong. This is the easiest point to address, but it is often the
least important as well. Many of their facts are correct, requiring other
responses. Second, the world of recycling has spread some myths and
exaggerations, for example claiming that the U.S. was literally running
out of landfill space five to ten years ago. Critiques of such "straw
man" arguments can only help to clarify our real economic and
environmental problems.

The third point is the most important. Although there is no
immediate landfill crisis, there are serious long-run issues concerning
resource use and environmental degradation, which recycling seeks to
address. Many crucial environmental values are not reflected in market
prices, so the short-run profitability of local recycling programs is not
the only measure of success. When people participate in recycling, they
are in part affirming the importance of nonmarket environmental values;
this affirmation should be supported and broadened, not attacked for its
detachment from the market.


Anti-recyclers generally begin by attacking the myth of the landfill
crisis (as does Tierney, after a brief, condescending anecdote about the
discussion of trash in an elementary school science class). Ominous
projections of impending landfill scarcity were common in the late 1980s,
as the current wave of recycling programs emerged. Many people still
believe it is urgent to recycle because there will soon be nowhere to put
their garbage.

Yet a funny thing happened on the way to the landfill crisis. As the
anti-recyclers observe, most places never ran out of disposal capacity.
In part this is due to a simple error, now widely recognized. Data on
landfills are sparse, and many early accounts merely compared the numbers
of landfills closing and opening each year, without considering their
size. In fact, huge numbers of small landfills are closing, while small
numbers of huge ones are opening, resulting in increases in disposal
capacity in some states. The nationwide average cost of landfilling waste
has remained around $31 - $34 per ton for several years, hardly evidence
of a crisis.

The anti-recyclers also debunk the legend of the Mobro 4000, the
garbage barge from Long Island that was turned away from one port after
another in 1987. Bailey's 1995 Wall Street Journal article focused on
this incident. At the time, the voyage of the Mobro was widely
interpreted as evidence that there would soon be no place left to put our
garbage, confirming the worst fears of a landfill shortage and emphasizing
the need for recycling. The revisionist history, supported by other
sources as well as anti- recyclers, attributes the Mobro's troubles to an
unsuccessful deal between a Long Island Mafia boss (now in jail for
conspiring to murder other trash haulers) and an inexperienced barge
owner. The Mobro arrived in several southern states, and later in
Caribbean ports, before signing firm agreements with any local landfills,
leading to suspicion that it carried hazardous waste. Other garbage
shipments to the same destinations, with signed disposal agreements in
hand before they departed, continued during and after the Mobro's journey.

Oddly enough, Tierney's New York Times article fails to mention that
the New York City area is the part of the country where local landfill
shortages may soon be the most severe. Some of the suburbs already ship
waste long distances, and the city itself will have to close its huge
landfill at Fresh Kills on Staten Island, perhaps in 10 to 15 years
(Staten Island residents want to close it even sooner). Fresh Kills, said
to be the world's largest landfill, receives 18,000 tons of waste per day,
a quantity that nearby facilities would find almost impossible to absorb.

But, says Tierney, "Why assume that New Yorkers have a moral
obligation to dispose of their garbage near home?" He offers a glowing
description of a small, rural Virgina county where a landfill accepts New
York-area waste; the landfill operator's $3 million annual payment to the
county has helped upgrade the local schools. The Virginia landfill has
about one-fifth the capacity of Fresh Kills, so New York City may be in
the market for five more like it.


Tierney's list of recycling myths include "We're a wicked throwaway
society" and "Our garbage will poison us." Throwing things away is not
wicked, in his view, because packaging can reduce food waste: a 1980
survey found that Mexico City households generate more pounds of waste per
capita than U.S. households, since packaging-deprived Mexicans buy so much
more fresh food, and discard so much more food waste. The survey result
was something of a surprise, since other research has routinely awarded
the American team the gold medal for per capita waste generation.

The point made by the Mexican survey is a valid, but limited, one.
Some forms of packaging do indeed save many times their own weight in
reduced spoilage and food waste. A world of zero packaging is neither
plausible nor desirable. At the same time, it is possible that a large
and perhaps growing portion of packaging could be wasteful. The purpose
of packaging is to make money for the producer; one way to make money is
to reduce waste in packages or products, while another way is to make
bigger, flashier packages that will attract more attention in the store.

Tierney observes that the worst environmental fears of landfills are
based on stories like Love Canal, which involve toxic industrial waste
rather than household trash. While true, this misses a bigger point about
pollution and the things we throw away. Modern landfills are required to
be far cleaner and safer than their predecessors; this is one of the
little-noticed success stories of contemporary environmental regulation.
It is true that the household, commercial, and construction wastes found
in a typical nonindustrial landfill today are unlikely to poison you.

However, disposal impacts are not the whole story. The products we
buy and discard are made by industry; the manufacturing process has far
greater environmental impacts than the disposal process. Using less
stuff, and reusing the products we have, is good for the environment
because it reduces the need for manufacturing, and hence reduces the
associated emissions. Recycling is good for the environment because
making almost anything out of recycled material causes lower industrial
emissions than making the same thing out of virgin material. (For a few
low-grade paper products, emissions from recycled and virgin production
are roughly comparable; Tierney exaggerates the confusion surrounding
these products to suggest, utterly inaccurately, that there are many cases
where recycled production is environmentally comparable to or worse than
virgin production.)


Tierney's recital of myths about recycling goes on to encompass
"We're cursing future generations with our waste" and "We're squandering
irreplaceable natural resources." Future generations won't mind our
waste, he thinks, because there is so little of it, and because
"Eventually, like previous landfills, the mounds of trash will be covered
with grass and become a minuscule addition to the nation's 150,000 square
miles of parkland."

More significant is the issue of squandering irreplaceable natural
resources. Paper, as Tierney suggests, can be made from trees grown on
sustainable, carefully managed tree plantations; so far, this possibility
has escaped the attention of much of the forest products industry. Metals
cannot be grown; bury them in landfills and they will be lost under the
future parklands forever, reducing the useable supply of metals for
posterity. Plastics, interestingly enough, could be made on a sustainable
basis from renewable biomass (plant) materials, but so far this has
escaped the attention of everyone but a few scientists. Today's plastics,
of course, are made from fossil fuels. Production of lightweight snack
packs may not be the highest- value use of the world's limited supply of


From the anti-recyclers' point of view, all would doubtless be
forgiven if recycling reliably made a profit. Unfortunately, only the
very best recycling programs make money every year; average programs are
profitable only in years like 1995, when they receive high prices for the
materials they sell. In my forthcoming book (Why Do We Recycle? /
Markets, Values, and Public Policy, available from Island Press in
December 1996) I estimate that an average curbside recycling program might
have made a profit of $5 per household in 1995 when material prices were
unusually high, compared to a loss of $21 per household in 1993 when
prices were low.

Prices in scrap markets, which determine recycling program revenues,
are extraordinarily erratic. This makes it practically impossible to make
firm longrun predictions about the economics of recycling. If prices
remain between the 1993 and 1995 levels, and recycling program costs and
efficiencies remain unchanged, then the average program will fluctuate
from year to year between a small loss and an even smaller profit.

Even at 1993 prices, the average loss from recycling is an entirely
manageable, affordable expenditure for a wealthy country to incur. In
exchange for that small monetary cost, we gain reductions in manufacturing
emissions, conservation of nonrenewable natural resources, and promotion
of an ethic of environmental concern and public participation. There is
no sensible way of placing a dollar value on these benefits; to me, they
seem well worth the price. Implicitly, millions of people seem to agree,
as they continue participating in their community recycling programs.

For anti-recyclers such as Tierney, even modest monetary costs are
outrageous -- and are described in a manner that makes them sound as big
as possible. New York City's recycling program, we are told, costs $50
million to $100 million annually, which amounts to $7 to $14 per capita
for the 7 million city residents. Rather than investigating hidden
benefits of the recycling program (do these figures include the savings on
disposal costs, which will rise sharply when Fresh Kills is closed?),
Tierney embarks on a financial fantasy designed to show the expense of
recycling is absurdly large.

First, he asks a college student to record the time required to
handle one week's recycling, and calculates the cost of paying everyone
$12 per hour for time spent in recycling. Then he estimates the cost of
renting a square foot of floor space ($4 a week, in New York) in
everyone's kitchen to store the recycling containers. These fictitious
costs of recycling are 14 times as large as the real costs, allowing him
to claim that recycling a ton of material "really" costs as much as buying
a one-ton used car.

If this is a good idea for recycling, surely it should be applied in
other areas of life. We all could bill the IRS for time spent keeping
records and filling out forms, and for rental of file drawers used in
these activities. The bill for time spent waiting on lines at the
Registry of Motor Vehicles would be substantial. But that way lies
madness, or at least the Michigan Militia. Life is not a business, and
participation in society is not a reimbursable business expense.

The fundamental reason to reject the anti-recycling argument is that
it ignores environmental values beyond the bottom line. Neither the
motivation for recycling nor the benefits it provides can be confined to
the marketplace, despite the best efforts of the anti-recyclers. Trying
hard to reduce the question of waste to a matter of dollars and cents,
Tierney suggests that recycling rules and regulations could be replaced by
a system of charging by the bag for garbage collection -- giving everyone
a financial incentive to reduce waste.

Such systems have been implemented in many communities, with modest
results. Their popularity reflects the ideological certainty that market
incentives are the answer, not their overwhelming performance in practice.
Typically, the introduction of a per-bag collection charge achieves a
one-time reduction, often 10 to 15 percent, in solid waste. The most
successful programs have used pay-per-bag garbage collection in
combination with free curbside recycling collection, not as an alternative
to it. Once a program is underway, there is almost no response to small
changes in per-bag charges, while a large increase in rates could provide
a strong incentive for illegal dumping. Moreover, New York City in
particular, with its numerous high-rise apartment buildings, is one of the
least promising places for charging individual households for garbage

Tierney mocks the commitment to recycling with an image from John
Bunyan's classic tale, "The Pilgrim's Progress." In the course of his
travels Bunyan's pilgrim encounters a "muckraker" in the original sense of
the term, a man raking through muck, or compost piles, searching for any
discarded items of value. The muckraker is so intent on his efforts to
recover waste materials that he does not notice an angel offering him a
golden celestial crown in exchange for his rake. The moral, the pilgrim
learns, is that "Earthly things, when they are with power upon men's
minds, quite carry their hearts away from God."

Yet it is exactly for this reason that the pilgrim's progress is not
along a road paved with market incentives. As Tierney tells us, the
pilgrim has, correctly in Bunyan's opinion, turned away from the
marketplace of Vanity Fair and the likes of Lord Luxurious and Sir Greedy.
In the end Tierney offers us, under the heading "The Celestial City
Glimpsed at Long Last", only the vision of the rural Virginia county that
is profiting from its huge landfill -- which sounds remarkably like a much
bigger pile of muck.