More Thoughts on Our Messages
Fri, 22 Jan 1999 16:24:09 -0500

DATE April 20, 1996
TO Grassroots Recycling Network Steering Committee
FROM Bill Sheehan

RE More Thoughts on Our Messages

The key questions as I see it are what issues do we push and who is
going to help push? The answer to the latter will affect the former.

1. Reach Out to Facility Fighters. If we propose fundamental changes
like total recycling and revising tax codes don't expect those
comfortable with the status quo to rock the boat. We need to engage the
progressive people in the National Recycling Coalition because we have
the technical and business expertise to create a sustainable materials
economy. But as a whole I fear we progressives in the NRC are too
comfortable and respectable to push for something big alone.

The critical group we need, I think, is folks fighting waste facilities,
incinerators and landfills in particular -- the Justifiable NIMBY Set,
as I think of them. From my experience in the Southeast, I see these as
the only folks with the fire and energy to rock the boat. They are
certainly a diverse bunch: bedrock conservative red necks, poor and
minority folks, as well as educated progressive types.

Nationally, the organizations and individuals I come across most often
are Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste, Paul Connett, Peter
Montague, Greenpeace, and Rainforest Action Network (I am sure you all
connect with others). I suspect that CCHW has the largest network of
folks fighting landfills and incinerators. Most of the above focus on
hazardous waste, but in the 'solid waste' arena Greenpeace and RAN seem
to specialize on trees, which of course relates to paper waste.

I believe many grassroots waste facility fighters will respond eagerly
to the message of zero waste/total recycling if we show how it can be
done technically and economically. A statewide coalition of community
activist groups in North Carolina I have worked with is enthusiastic
about the idea. The Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League has been
fighting (mostly successfully) every kind of waste facility from nuclear
and hazardous to incinerators and private megadumps for over a decade.
They have been talking tentatively about doing away with landfills, but
haven't had the time or expertise to develop the idea. Interestingly,
they say that in the (mostly rural) communities where they work they
'don't see the tracks' of the North Carolina Recycling Association,
which I think of as one of the most active and progressive SROs in the

2. Develop a Message That Helps Facility Fighters. I believe we
need to explicitly and aggressively confront landfills (where over 80
percent of wasting in the U.S. occurs), as well as present an
alternative. Plug the toilet. Incineration (at least mass burn) is
largely a dead issue in most places, thanks in part to the work of Neil
and Dan and I suspect several others reading this message. Where
incineration is not dead, costs have been raised so high that total
recycling could compete if given a chance. (We may also have to deal
with mixed waste composting.)

But we environmentalists mostly have a blind eye to landfills. Probably
this is because environmentalists were partly responsible (WMX and
friends had a hand too) in the 1980s for getting Congress, through RCRA,
to require EPA to adopt and enforce a very specific landfill design that
seemed like a good idea at the time. The problem is that the required
dry tomb approach ('Subtitle D') is flawed: it postpones environmental
contamination in most locations unless perpetual care -- read cash
infusion -- is applied.

We need to expose the myth that current 'dry tomb' design criteria
represent a safe and cheap solution to discard management. If
landfilling is seen as both safe and cheap ($30/ton in the Southeast),
we are not going to get very far with total recycling. One of my key
sources on this issue, Dr. G. Fred Lee, estimates that protective
landfills can be built for $35 to $100 per ton more than current tipping
fees. If we can force that, as well as raise the ante on the input side
of the equation (end virgin subsidies, manufacturer responsibility,
etc.), then total recycling facilities will simply outcompete landfills.

3. Make Wasting Pay. So what about the Tax Bads message? The
preceding discussion is a preamble to suggesting that the Tax Bads
message is too narrow and doesn't address the concerns of the facility
fighters I think we need to engage. Besides, I respect the opinion of
Dan Knapp and Dave Kirkpatrick that focusing on more taxes is dangerous.
It is certainly an important message and a necessary element, but I
think we would do better to put it in the context of the wasting
linearity (I want to say cycle, but the problem is that it is not a
cycle). We should advocate ending all subsidies that promote wasting:
from (1) raw material extraction subsidies, through (2) manufacturing
(e.g., disposal costs for overpackaged, flimsy and disposable goods are
subsidized by local governments and tax payers), to (3) actual wasting
in landfills and incinerators (in the case of landfills, true
environmental costs are subsidized by future generations). The best
message I can come up with to express all this is Make Wasting Pay. Any
better ideas?

What I am proposing is that we focus on material waste that typically
gets burned or buried (EPA's municipal solid waste). Create Jobs Not
Waste and Total Recycling do this. A problem with giving top billing to
the Tax Bads message is that it is not specifically focused on material
waste; the more widespread applications are to energy and pollution. I
think we have more than enough to do without taking on energy, chemical
pollution, pesticides, overpopulation, etc. I even think campaign
finance reform is a distraction. We need to deal with all of these, and
social justice and others as well, but we can mention some as bullets
and build alliances with groups that are focused on these issues.

Please give me some feedback on this!