[GRRN] Recent Betsy Hart opinion essay on recycling

Roger M. Guttentag (rgutten@concentric.net)
Tue, 09 Nov 1999 11:14:15 -0500

Dear GreenYes:

Pablo Collins was kind enough to forward to this list the text to Betsy
Hart's opinion essay on recycling that was published recently on
NandoTimes. Naturally, some of us were upset with Ms Hart's opinions. I
was, of course, disappointed with the tenor of her thoughts on recycling.
But I was even more disappointed with this list's response which ranged
from a crushing silence to squeals of outrage. The purpose of a
discussion list such as GreenYes is to --- discuss! Well, I agree with
Bill McGowan's recent reply in which he clearly stated that ad-hominem
attacks are not a good substitute for reasoned discussion. I would like
to offer my contribution to this topic, which I hope will help us move on
in a positive way, with the following thoughts about articles in the vein
of Ms. Hart's essay:

1. In a way, articles attacking the virtues or value of municipal
recycling can be seen in a positive light since what journalist will
waste time and precious ink (or electrons) on insignificant issues. The
fact that recycling programs of all stripes have now become established
in thousands of communities nationally means that municipal recycling has
now become a big and important enough target for journalistic barbs.
Congratulations - recycling has achieved sacred cow status! Frankly, I
am surprised there isn't a bigger cloud of journalistic biting bugs
hovering over this beast.

2. Criticism, for whatever reasons, is good if it is handled well and our
responses to it become the basis for making recycling stronger. We should
assume, unless there is clear evidence to the contrary, that criticisms
against recycling are being made for honorable reasons even if we
strenuously disagree with the assumptions or conclusions that are
advanced by the critics. If the critics are right, then let's correct
the problems. If they are wrong, then we need to carefully respond to
them in the same vein as the Natural Resources Defense Council
(www.nrdc.org) did in their report "Too Good to Throw Away."

3. I will be the first to acknowledge that many recycling programs could
be better managed and that there are many cost efficiency improvements
that still need to be fully worked out. It is hard for professionals who
work in this field to keep track of all the new improvements and programs
that are being done. I believe it is impossible for professionals, like
journalists, who are looking in from the outside, to know what is really
happening without informed guidance. Unfortunately, sometimes this
guidance comes from the wrong source. For example, Ms. Hart's citation
from "recycling expert" James DeLong is based on Mr. DeLong's
Competitive Enterprise Institute's monograph "Wasting Away: Mismanaging
Municipal Solid Waste." For those interested in reading it's executive
summary online go to:


Interestingly enough, a review of Mr. DeLong's bio does not seem to
reveal the kind of background I would expect for a "recycling expert."
We should make it as easy as possible for journalists, who are not
familiar with this subject and who don't have an ideological axe to
grind, to get the facts on where recycling makes sense and works well. I
would recommend, in this vein, a comprehensive online bibliography of
print and web-based citations on the value of municipal recycling. We
should then promote this web site to all major news organizations as well
as to other web sites that are specifically oriented to helping
journalists do Internet based research for their articles.

4. We need to candidly acknowledge that there may be cases where, in the
short run, the cost to maximize waste reduction and recycling can cost
more than landfilling everything. However, there is nothing wrong with
this situation if the community is well aware of this outcome and is
willing to support it because of prevailing community values. For
example, where I live in Southeast PA, there are communities that have
rejected municipal contracting for solid waste and recycling even though
it would be <underline>cheaper</underline> because many residents prefer
making their own choices on which company provides these services.
Conversely, we need to make it clear that because of the myriad ways in
which solid waste and recycling services are paid for in the U.S. it is
simply not true, contrary to what Ms. Hart asserts, that paying less for
these services automatically means more money for other public services
such as libraries.

5. Bill Carter pointed out in his e-mail message of 11/5/99 that we keep
seeing the same arguments and criticisms against recycling over and over
such as the bashing we endure over the fallacy of the landfill capacity
scarcity argument that was once advanced as a reason to recycle. Well,
to paraphrase a well worn cliche, it did look like a good reason at the
time. The bottom line is that we need to careful about the
justifications we give for supporting municipal recycling and that
includes trying to make allowances for significant potential changes in
policies, technologies and market changes that could undercut these
justifications. Because, as we see now, if we're proven wrong our
critics will literally recycle their arguments interminably.


Roger M. Guttentag


Read <italic>Recycling in Cyberspace</italic> in Resource Recycling

November / December, 1999 topic : How to Use the Internet More
Effectively for Improving Recycling.