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Hi Alan ~
Thanks for your note. Having worked in the public sector my entire career, both at University Extension, and state and local government, I am well aware of politics. But, I don't think that politics is a reason to back off being comprehensive. In fact, just the opposite. Environmentalists have long criticized decision-makers for not looking at the big picture, for not recognizing, as did John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, that "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."
I think that the Zero Waste movement, as presently configured, is guilty of being too narrowly focused. What especially pains me is that this is coming from a group that cares about the environment, and yet neglects what I feel is one of the most important environmental/ecological principles -- being holistic and examing the interactions that exist.
I do not share your concern about debate and what others say. Debate is healthy -- none of us has an monopoly on the truth and knowledge. People who make absurd assertions, such as " The moon is made of green cheese" are soon ignored by the rest of society. Through "sifting and winnowing", I believe, the truth will come out, both in peer-reviewed articles, as well as in the general press. Do you remember John Tierney's article in the New York Times magazine, "Recycling is Garbage"? It caused quite a furor, but the impact has been neglible. His absurd arguments produced no lasting reversal of recycling.
I recently participated on the Wisconsin Governor's Task Force on Waste Materials Recovery and Disposal. Composed of 20 members from a broad range of backgrounds, including the solid waste industry, manufacturers, environmental groups, non-profits, communities, etc, we came out with with a broad range of recommendations. One part of the study was to look at a comprehensive analysis of the impacts of various forms of materials management. I did several analyses on glass and on landfills, and an environmental economics professor did a broader study. There was no disagreement at all with the results, with showed a net social cost of a system of landfilling at $98 a ton, while the recycling system has societal benefits of a net of $185 a ton. Through debate, discussion, refinement, the useful of the results was expanded, not diminished.
And previous notes of mine to this list have described similar studies done by Jeff Morris here in the US, and studies done in the UK, Norway, Denmark and Austria. While all scientific fields continue to add new information and ideas, the field of environmental economics is sufficiently developed in my opinion to offer a useful tool for comprehensive environmental valuations in concert with other disciplines. What I see, instead, is that not enough of us are using the tools that are available to us. All of us on this list have advanced to the use of computers and email as useful tools. Why have we failed to learn and put to use the tools for more comprehensive approaches to addressing the challenge of improving material management?
I think that the focus of Zero Waste is fundamentally flawed because it too narrowly defines both the issues and the potential solutions and fails to use the tools available to better analyze the issues and solutions. I urge that we move beyond this approach to a more comprehensive view of the world.
From: Alan Muller [mailto:email@example.com]
Sent: Thursday, May 03, 2007 5:56 PM
To: Reindl, John; GreenYes@no.address
Subject: Re: [GreenYes] The Death of Recycling
At 04:09 PM 5/3/2007 -0500, Reindl, John wrote:
There has not been as much discussion of this issue as I would have thought, so maybe these comments will elicit some more response.
I have been disappointed with the Zero Waste movement on several counts.
First, the emphasis has been on Zero Waste to landfills and incinerators, with an almost exclusive emphasis on recycling. There has been almost a recycling über alles attitude -- that it is the silver bullet to solve all our problems. Now I am seeing some touting manufacturers' responsibilityas the solution to implement Zero Waste.
As I have written on this list many times, I think that this approach can result in an increase in negative environmental impacts. I recommend that we work for minimizing total environmental impact as a method to increase the sustainability of materials management, and not limit ourselves to a few parts of the system or a few potential solutions.
You have written these things may times and I have thought about it each time I have read it. A response (not a rebuttal....):
Yes, of course, we should try to be aware of "total environmental impact," for many reasons, not the least being that environmental regulatory program managers tend to be satisfied to get the impacts transferred to another medium.....
But determining relative "total impact" is no trivial matter, involves many judgement calls, and tends to become "political."
As an advocate I have become dubious about creating processes that can be controlled by the party able to hire the most experts. With money, I can hire a regiment of experts to swear on stacks of bibles that the moon is made of green cheese. Worse, I can get my experts to claim that, say, a community should live with incinerator emissions for some greater good....
I agree that much foolishness results from failure to analyse the actual consequences of something before doing it, and there is more than enough foolishness of this sort in materials management. But I think the perversities come in much higher scale from the garbage industry and market/economic distortions than from misguided idealists.
Zero Waste is a concept. Like any concept it can be implemented well or not well. But rejecting Zero Waste due to bad examples is like rejecting democracy because Bush was twice elected.... Yeah, its discouraging and inexcusable, but is there a better game?
Second, I have been disappointed with some of the promoters of the Zero Waste effort, especially in their rigidity in not evaluating any input from others. There seems to be a tacit assumption by some that all critiques are negative -- that their approach is beyond improvement.
In one particular situation, in a state other than mine, a proposal was put forward under the banner of Zero Waste for the collection of food scraps from household and businesses, with the material to be trucked to the municipal waste water treatment plant. I noted that a PhD on the relative impacts of a variety of food scrap handling approaches was done at the University of Wisconsin, and that the project proponents may want to both look at it and do an environmental analysis of their proposal. These suggestions were rebuffed and I was told that if I thought an environmental analysis was worthwhile, then I should find the funding for that aspect of their project. I was surprised by this reaction -- although we ask the business community to look at the environmental impacts of their projects, for some reason the proponents of this food recovery project believed that their project need not need similar review. It seemed to me then -- and in other contacts with other proponents of Zero Waste -- that most comments for improvement are rejected.
Having been in the solid waste field for over 35 years, I have seen many ideas come and go, including those that people thought at one time were true beyond doubt. I would hope that we would continue, as it says at our local university, to "sift and winnow" in the search for the truth, wherever it takes us, and to be comprehensive in this search.
John Reindl, Recycling Manager
Dane County, WI
From the 1894 Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin:
"Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the Great State University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found"
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