Garbage In, Garbage Out
Fri, 22 Jan 1999 16:20:45 -0500

Here's my response to John Tierney's recycling trash in the NYT Magazine. This
piece appears on the ReThink Paper homepage,

Mark Mardon
Publications Manager
ReThink Paper
Earth Island Institute

Garbage In, Garbage Out: The NYT Magazine Recycles Nonsense

Paper -- For unusually cynical
and self-serving reasons, The
New York Times Magazine in
late June ran a hit piece that
trashed recycling. In bold print,
with a reckless disregard for the truth, the
magazine declared that sorting cans, bottles, and
papers for recovery "could be America's most
wasteful activity."

Written by Times staffer John Tierney, the Times
article relied on sophistry to put across its message,
replete with distortion and innuendo and rife with
omissions. So sloppy was the reporting that by all
rights the article should be ignored rather than
dignified with a response. Yet the truth must be
defended, dignity be damned. Here, then, to get
beyond the Times' smoke screen, ReThink Paper
responds to The New York Times' untruths,
skewed facts, unfounded assertions, and other

THE TIMES FALLACY: Recycling is a waste of time,
money, and resources.

REALITY: If overflowing landfills were the only
environmental concern, Tierney's argument might begin to make
sense. Yet recycling addresses a host of environmental problems
that Tierney ignored, including, for instance, the loss of
forests--wild ecosystems, not tree-farms--logged to supply pulp
for virgin-wood paper. Today almost half of all trees cut end up
as paper, and the percentage is increasing. Recycling can have a
dramatic impact on tree cutting. If 45 percent of our paper came
from recycled fiber, we could save 2.5 billion cubic feet of
timber (and millions of trees) by the year 2040.

Moreover, for every ton of recycled paper we use instead of
virgin paper, we save 4,100 kilowatt hours of energy (enough to
power the average home for six hours), conserve 7,000 gallons
of water, and keep 60 pounds of pollutants out of the air.

Using virgin materials, as The Times advocates, squanders
energy that could be conserved by recycling. Who in their right
mind would want to continue paying high energy bills when it's
possible to reduce energy costs by up to 80 percent? Even
factoring in the cost of collection and processing, recycled paper,
compared to virgin-wood paper, reduces energy consumption by
anywhere from 46 percent (for writing paper) to 61 percent (for
newsprint) and 80 percent (for boxboard and liner board).

Perhaps the most egregious omission in Tierney's analysis of our
garbage situation is the fact that Americans are addicted to
overconsumption. The article neatly sidesteps the issue, taking for
granted the idea that more is better. What's really being wasted in
America is the well-being of the next generation and those that
follow. By crassly consuming resources and leaving behind
waste, we're dumping the cost of restoration on them. The
measure of our humanity is the degree to which we conserve
Earth's bounties for those who follow in our footsteps, while
sparing them the burden of cleaning up our messes.

THE TIMES FALLACY: There's no shortage of landfill

REALITY: Unfortunately, to be at all economical, landfills
must be situated near areas where people live. And that's the rub:
Nobody wants to live near a landfill. The political complexities of
siting landfills have been well documented in several recent
books, pointing out the absurdity of assuming Americans can
dump all their garbage into a giant landfill in the middle of
Kansas or some other "remote" place. In fact, landfills tend to get
sited in or near populations with the least economic and political
clout--typically communities of color whose voices aren't heard
in the halls of power.

This situation is bound to become more aggrivated as existing
landfills reach capacity and close, as has happened steadily since
1978, when there were some 20,000 landfills. By 1988 that
number had dropped to 5,499, and currently the figure stands at
3,563. The EPA estimates that by the year 2008, only 1,234
landfills will be available. Yet Americans continue to generate
some 750,000 tons of waste each day.

THE TIMES FALLACY: Regulations mandating recycled
pulp content in newsprint handicap old-fashioned newspapers in
their rivalry with upstart electronic rivals on the Internet.

REALITY: This whining gets to the heart of why The Times
would run such a sloppy piece--out of sheer desperation. With up
to 23 million North Americans now surfing the World Wide
Web--where superb up-to-the-minute news and features are
readily available--The Times and other newspapers stand to lose
readership and clout (not to mention advertisers. But for The
Times to blame recycling laws for its inability to maintain a
competitive edge in a fast-changing field is like Detroit auto
makers crying that fuel-efficiency requirements keep them from
competing effectively against the Japanese. The fact is The Times,
like auto makers and other industries, needs to find more
efficient ways of producing its product, rather than demanding a
licence to destroy the environment in pursuit of profit.

THE TIMES FALLACY: Recycling meets emotional, but
not economic, needs. People just want to "feel" good, but they're
only wasting their time.

REALITY: As usual for critics of environmental efforts who
grasp at sound arguments and find them lacking, Tierney resorts
to sexist innuendo and stereotyping to cast recycling proponents
as weak-minded spiritualists. The unstated implication of this
alleged reasoning is that recyclers are somehow "soft," or
"feminine." Practical-minded people like himself, on the other
hand, are presumably scientific, materialist, and "manly."
Recyclers, apparently, are ditzy New Agers, while landfill
proponents are no-nonsense Marlboro men.

But it's Tierney and his editors at The Times who have their
heads in the clouds. If Tierney had only checked the readily
available data, he'd have found that recycling efforts create far
more jobs than do waste-disposal enterprises. One recent study by
the Institute for Local Self Reliance, for instance ("Creating
Wealth From Discarded Materials," Economic Development
Commentary, Vol. 19, No. 4, Winter 1996), shows how dramatic
the difference between recycling and disposal benefits in the three
metropolitan areas of Washington, DC, Baltimore, MD, and
Richmond, VA. "This region recycles 24 percent of its waste
stream," write authors Neil Seldman and Michael Lewis," and
disposes of 74 percent in landfills and incinerators. Yet the
recycling sector supports 7,187 jobs as compared to the disposal
sector which generates only 1,418 jobs."

Because The New York Times has a vested interest in seeing to it
that recycling regulations are abolished, it's not surprising the
paper let Tierney spew out a lot of garbage. Neither he nor his
editors are likely to be persuaded by figures that undermine their
argument. Yet for thousands who reap the economic benefits of
recycling, and the tens of thousands more who could profit from
expanded recycling efforts, what's important is not so muchThe
Times ' editorial decisions, but the old newspapers in its waste
stream, which could either molder for no good reason in landfills
or get a second life, hopefully to print the truth.

THE TIMES FALLACY: Federal recycling regulations
equal central planning.

REALITY: The Cold War isn't dead, it's just shifted from the
Soviet Union to the United States, where conservatives have
zeroed in on environmentalists as the new Red Menace. The
irony, of course, is that recycling and other environmental goals
are profoundly conservative by nature, aimed at preserving
natural resources and keeping communities--including
non-human ones--intact.

THE TIMES FALLACY: Cutting 75,000 trees for The New
York Times Sunday edition does not equal waste, because
America's supply of timber is increasing.

REALITY: The timber supply increases at the expense of
forests, which are rapidly declining. The editors of Clearcut
(Earth Island Press/Sierra Club Books, 1993) noted aptly that
"trees planted in rows by industrial foresters do not make a
forest." Tree plantations lack the complex ecology of forests.
They're biologically sterile. Part of the reason so many animal
and plant species in the United States and Canada are teetering on
the verge of extinction is that nurturing, protective forest habitats
have been clearcut to make way for tree farms. To count these
plantations as part of the nation's "forest cover" is to ignore the
vast damage inflicted by logging companies across the continent.

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