Fri, 22 Jan 1999 16:21:45 -0500

[Part 1 of 3 --sent as <20K segments to avoid encoding protocols of some
--Bill Sheehan]

On June 30, the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story entitled "Recycling
is Garbage." The Environmental Defense Fund's response follows. This
was set up with minimal formatting in order to facilitate email transfers.
Please forward copies to interested parties you may know of, and send us their
email addresses. If you would like a copy as a Word 6.0 document, please
"members@edf.org" or call EDF Public Information at (202) 387-3500. This
and additional information on recycling is also available on EDF's Web site: w

Thank you,
John Ruston



Commentary on "Recycling is Garbage"
(John Tierney, New York Times Magazine, June 30, 1996)


The Environmental Defense Fund

Richard A. Denison, Ph.D.
Senior Scientist
1875 Connecticut Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20006
(202) 387-3500
email richard@edf.org

John F. Ruston
Economic Analyst
257 Park Avenue South
New York, NY 10010
(212) 505-2100
email john@edf.org

July 18, 1996

(For more information on recycling and additional copies of this paper,
call the Public Information Dept. in EDF's Washington, DC office, send email
to members@edf.org, or visit www.edf.org on the World Wide Web.)


Over the past decade, the U.S. public has embraced recycling to a remarkable
degree. The growth in recycling programs reflects the common-sense
instinct of
Americans to conserve resources and not foul their own nests. The very
of recycling has spawned detractors, who question its merits. Yet there is
compelling evidence that, by transforming waste materials into useable
resources, recycling provides our society with several major benefits:

* Recycling cuts pollution and conserves natural resources.

* Recycling conserves energy.

* Recycling programs that are sensibly designed and implemented can be
cost-competitive with solid waste landfilling and incineration.

* Recycling creates jobs and reduces costs in manufacturing sectors that
are an
important part of our economy.

Just like burying trash in landfills or burning it in incinerators, recycling
is not free. Given this fact, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) supports a
robust, fact-based assessment of the public interest in recycling, waste
reduction and composting. Recycling is not a panacea for our environmental
problems, nor should it be pursued to the point of diminished returns or at
cost. A full appraisal of the environmental and economic benefits and
costs of
recycling, in comparison with the one-way consumption and disposal of used
products and packaging, is essential to define the appropriate role for

Recently, the quality of the debate has been undermined by a gravely
inaccurate article that appeared in the June 30 issue of the New York Times
Magazine. Titled "Recycling is Garbage," this article is anything but a
fact-based assessment. Instead, the author unquestioningly repeats the claims
of a group of think tanks and consultants that we call "the anti-recyclers."

Using "Recycling is Garbage" as a case study, this paper examines the
made by the anti-recyclers, correcting factual errors and
offering additional data and perspective, and acknowledging the few kernels of
truth in their arguments. [2]

Who are the anti-recyclers?

Recycling has always faced detractors, especially municipal curbside recycling
collection programs. The early nay-sayers included solid waste officials who
were resistant to change, and trash haulers and incinerator builders who
resented the new competition.

At first, the argument was that citizens would not go to the trouble to sort
recyclable items from their trash. We now know that well-designed and
publicized curbside collection programs in typical American suburban
communities routinely achieve participation rates of 80% and higher. Skeptics
also said that markets for recovered materials would not absorb all the new
materials being collected. But since 1985, consumption of recovered metals,
glass, plastic and paper by American manufacturers has grown steadily, even as
commodity prices for virgin and recycled materials naturally fluctuate.

The nine-page June 30 Times Magazine article did not contain a single quote
from a representative of the recycling industry. Instead -- ironic for an
author who maintains that environmentalists' enthusiasm for recycling is mere
religious fervor -- the article relied heavily on quotes and information
supplied by a group of consultants and think tanks that have strong
objections to recycling.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute (both based in
Washington DC), the Reason Foundation (based in Santa Monica, CA) and the
Policy Center (based in Leesburg, VA) are policy think tanks that tend to
oppose government programs of any sort. At least some of these organizations
accept funding from companies involved in solid waste collection, landfilling
and incineration, the manufacturing of products from virgin materials, and the
production and sale of packaging and consumer products. Many of the
corporations that fund the anti-recyclers have a direct economic stake in
maintaining the waste management status quo and in minimizing consumers'
scrutiny of the environmental effects of products and packaging. [3]

An underlying theme of the anti-recyclers is that government bureaucrats have
imposed recycling on people against their will, conjuring up an image of Big
Brother hiding behind every recycling bin. Yet public opinion polls and
consumer research show that recycling enjoys overwhelming public support
because people believe it is good for the environment and conserves
resources.[4] This overwhelming public support, not a government edict, is a
major reason why state and local initiatives in recycling have flourished.

Is the public wrong in its belief that recycling is good for the environment?
The answer is a resounding "no." Let's examine the arguments of the

Anti-recycling myth #1: The modern recycling movement is a product of a false
"crisis" in landfill space created by the media and environmentalists.

Fact: Concentrating on landfill space misses the point. The greatest
environmental benefits of recycling occur in reducing natural resource damage
and pollution that arise when extracting virgin raw materials and
new products.

Materials collected for recycling have already been refined and processed
so manufacturing the second time around is usually much cleaner and less
energy-intensive than the first. At current recycling levels, for example,
United States is saving enough energy through recycling to provide electricity
for 9 million homes.[5] Moreover, recycling-based manufacturing reduces the
need for activities like strip-mining and clear-cutting used to acquire virgin
raw materials. These themes have been consistently sounded in analyses
published by the Environmental Defense Fund over the last decade.

Every recent study that has examined recycling relative to other waste
management options supports these conclusions about the benefits of

These studies have examined the full lifecycle of virgin and recycled
accounting for the pollution and energy use associated with activities such as
operating recycling trucks or hauling logs out of the forest. This research
shows that the energy and environmental benefits of recycling far outweigh
additional environmental burdens resulting from the collection, processing and
transport of recyclable materials collected in curbside recycling programs.

EDF provided the author of the Times Magazine article with a review of these
studies [6], which he ignored except for a brief, buried aside near the end of
his article. He cited our data indicating that, on average, making recycled
newsprint uses 36% more water than making virgin newsprint (5,000 additional
gallons of water per ton of newsprint produced). What the author didn't
mention, however, was that data from the same study demonstrate major
advantages to recycled newsprint in every other category of environmental
impact examined: energy use, air emissions and solid waste generation.
Moreover, he failed to report that recycling's strong advantages, including
lower water use, are even more pronounced for every other major grade of paper
recycled in the U.S. today, including corrugated boxes, office paper and
boxboard. [7]

Following his perfunctory reference to the environmental benefits of
the author adds a curious and completely unsupported assertion: "... there
much more direct -- and cheaper -- ways to reduce pollution." Given the fact
that the major environmental impacts of producing and using materials and
products product occur "upstream" in acquiring raw materials and in
manufacturing, what could be more direct than substituting recovered materials
for virgin materials, thereby avoiding the need to extract raw materials and
intensively processing them? And in most cases manufacturers are finding that
recovered materials also provide a less expensive means to meet their need for
materials (see below).

Anti-recycling myth #2: Landfills are innocuous.

Fact: Landfills can be major sources of water and air pollution.

According to "Recycling is Garbage," municipal solid waste landfills "contain
small amounts of hazardous lead and mercury, but studies have found that these
poisons stay trapped inside the mass of garbage even in the old unlined dumps
that were built before today's stringent regulations." This statement is
simply wrong. One out of every five sites slated for cleanup under the
nation's Superfund program for toxic waste sites is a former municipal solid
waste landfill. And there is a lot more than just lead and mercury going into
and coming out of ordinary landfills.

Municipal landfill leachate (the liquid that drains from beneath a landfill)
contains a host of conventional and toxic pollutants quite similar in
composition and concentration to the leachate draining from hazardous waste
landfills. In most modern landfills -- but not in many older landfills that
are still operating, systems are installed to collect some or all of this
leachate. Even when it is successfully collected rather than escaping and
potentially contaminating groundwater, however, leachate must be treated
it can be discharged -- a major expense and a burden on already-encumbered
municipal sewage treatment plants.

The decomposition of paper as well as yard waste and other materials in
landfills also creates a variety of gaseous emissions. These gases include
volatile organic chemicals which add to urban smog, and methane, a "greenhouse
gas" that is far more potent per ton emitted than is carbon dioxide in
contributing to global warming. Only a small minority of landfills operating
today collect these gases. Landfills are responsible for an estimated 36% of
all methane emissions in the U.S. [8]

Anti-recycling myth #3: Landfill space is cheap and abundant.

Fact: Landfill space is a commodity, priced according to supply and demand.
The majority of the growth of recycling in the United States has occurred in
populated regions where landfills are expensive relative to the U.S. average.

Recycling avoids the cost of disposing of materials in landfills and
incinerators. Many communities, especially those in the more densely
parts of the country, experienced a major escalation in landfill prices in the
late 1980's. Of the roughly 40% of the U.S. population served by curbside
recycling programs in 1993, almost two-thirds lived in the Northeast, where
disposal costs are high, or on the West Coast, which has more moderate
costs but offers especially high prices for -- and hence higher revenues from
the sale of -- recyclable materials. Curbside recycling in these areas is a
rational response to economic costs and opportunities.

(We agree with the author of "Recycling is Garbage," that "incinerators turned
out to be disastrously expensive." Beginning in 1984, the Environmental
Defense Fund has published several analyses reaching the same conclusion. [9]
Solid waste incinerators, which process about 15% of municipal solid waste,
on average substantially more expensive to build and operate than landfills,
and in many cases, recycling collection and processing. The fact remains that
more than 170 municipalities in the United States face the comparatively high
costs imposed by operating incinerators that have already been built.)