ReThink Paper vs. New York Times
Fri, 22 Jan 1999 16:20:47 -0500

The following is ReThink Paper director Emily Miggins' response to John
Tierney's New York Times Magazine article on recycling. It appears in its
full glory on the ReThink Paper Web site:

What's That Trash Doing In The New York Times?
By Emily Miggins
Director, ReThink Paper
Earth Island Institute, San Francisco

It isn't surprising that John Tierny's revisionist piece, "Recycling is
Garbage," recently veered its ugly head in The New York Times Magazine. In
fact it would appear to be a well timed and succinct part of a complex,
subtle strategy set forth by the timber and plastics industries along with
other Wise Use movement organizers.

Just at the point in time when The New York Times and other papers are
under public scrutiny for their paper procurement policies, this piece
appears. Is it coincidence? The Times has been under pressure to use more
environmentally sound furnish for their pages-and especially to stop
cutting ancient forests such as British Columbia's Clayoquot Sound for its

Thanks to Tierney, however, for pointing out that it takes 75,000 trees to
produce one Sunday edition of The New York Times. It's a horrifying number
indeed. What Tierny failed to point out was thatThe New York Times has
been deriving its newsprint from forest-destroying companies such as
Fletcher Challenge and MacMilllan Blodell!

I had to shake my head in dismay when reading, in the The New York Times
Magazine, the rhetoric of the timber and plastic industries, asserting that
trees are renewable resource, and that we have more trees today in America
than ever before. This totally misses ecologists' point. The issue isn't
about mere trees; if it were, the timber industry could raze and replace
every forest on the continent with tree farms and nobody would care. The
issue, instead, is about intact watersheds, about forest ecosystems that
support complex chains of interdependent life. These ecosystems are an
essential part of what makes it possible for us to survive on Earth.

Tierny cites Jerry Taylor of the Cato Institute to the effect that trees
are an agricultural crop. Indeed some paper companies farm trees, so why
doesn't The Times restrict itself to using tree-farmed fiber? Perhaps
because much of the tree-farmed fiber available domestically is good only
for making popsicle sticks, not paper. Better yet, why doesn't The Times
take corn stalks and turn them into perfectly good paper? That would be
truly wise resource use, especially in light of the fact that the United
States has a vast supply of agricultural residues available for papermaking
(more than 283 million tons per year from corn, wheat, rice, oats, cotton,
and other annuals), and the know-how and technology to process it. We could
pay American farmers for their waste, thereby eliminating the need to burn
it and cutting back on air pollution. We'd saving energy because corn
stalks are easily pulped compared to trees, and of course produce far less
pollution and toxic by products. We could continue to divert paper waste
into the same batches of paper being produced form farm residues, thereby
closing the recycling loop.

What's most alarming about The Times piece is that it seems to be part of
a well-organized campaign supported by transnational corporations seeking
to undo the nation's environmental laws. In this light, it isn't odd at all
that Tierney idiotically compares McDonald's garbage output favorably to
that of a small Mexican family. Most Mexicans don't eat food out of plastic
containers-and if they did you can bet they'd reuse that container for 100
various other purposes until it couldn't be used again.

Tierney's figures on the amount of waste generated by a typical McD's meal
(about 2 ounces of garbage for each customer served) are ludicrous. Perhaps
2 ounces of garbage per customer would be the right number if McDonalds
produced all of its McChicken sandwiches and Quarter Pounders with
organically raised chickens and cows, lettuce, tomato, and onions. But Mr.
Tierney didn't look far enough backwards into the cycle of a fast-food
sandwich. He didn't ask how many pesticides and fertilizers were used on
the vegetables, how much grain and land went into fattening up the chickens
and cows for slaughters, how many chemicals were used to produce the
packaging, or hoeceich toxic waste flushed into the environment from the
production and long-distance transportation of the packaging, livestock,
and produce across the country.

Pointing out that biodegradables don't necessarily decompose in airless
landfills raises another question: Why are we throwing out resource-rich
materials out in the first place? Paper can and should be repulped for new
cardboard and paper. I'm sure William Rathje of the University of Arizona
would agree. Mummifying renwable, reusable resources is inefficient.

Paper versus plastic? Here Tierney's inviting the wrong response. The
correct answer is-neither. Instead, take along a hemp tote bag to the
grocery store. Get used to carrying it, and get out of the garbage loop. It
isn't that hard to do. The time someone spent calculating how much landfill
space it takes to dispose of one paper bag versus twelve plastic bags would
have been enough to sort through some waste baskets and divert the
renewables to the appropriate recycling bin.

Tierny reached the heights of absurdity in extrapolating from the case of
the "neutral" college student who spends an apparently burdensome eight
minutes a week separating recyclables in his building. From that bit of
data, Tierney deduces that the City of New York is spending a whole $3,000
to support the student's habit. Would Tierney prefer the college student
spent those eight minutes smoking a cigarette or two? What would be the
government's expense in that case? You can bet recycling would look pretty
darned cost effective in comparison.

Tierny argues that new staples cost very little, so why go to the expense
of recycling them? He seems to suggest that the cost of purchasable
reflects true cost. But surely Tierny must realize that cost has very
little to do with price. Perhaps he needs to re-read those seminal
ecological texts he refers to. We live in an economy where the price of
goods are set and dictated by corporate forces and scales of economies.
They decide how much we will pay for their products.

Revisionism is a tricky and dangerous enterprise. Fortunately, Tierney's
revisionism is relatively minor compared with, say, that of "scholars" and
journalists trying to expunge the Holocaust. Yet his obsession seems just
as severe. He seems bent on proving that toxics activist Lois Gibbs is a
threat to liberty, and that the tragdey of Love Canal and places like it
never happened. Maybe next he'll be trying to prove that children and
animals in the small Texas town of Winona aren't really afflicted with
cancers and mutations caused emissions from the local hazardous-waste
facility. Tierney seems bent on whitewashing the entire waste industry.

The crafty way in which Tierney weaves figures, and the way he upholds them
with bogus arguments, is amazing, if not funny. It had me in stitches,
laughing at its transparent absurdity. Perhaps I should thank Tierny and
The New York Times Magazine for lighting a fire under environmentalists
like myself, proving that our evangelical journey is far from complete. Now
we'll just have to work harder to gain converts to the recycling cause. I
look forward to the day Tierney himself surrenders his soul and joins me
and my fellow muckrakers in sorting through garbage rather than creating