[GRRN] "Recycling is a Waste" essay

Roger M. Guttentag (rgutten@concentric.net)
Wed, 17 Nov 1999 11:52:17 -0500

Dear Ms. Hart:

I am writing in response to your recent essay " Recycling is a Waste." So
you can understand the origins of my comments, you should know that I have
been involved in the development of municipal recycling programs for over
20 years. One of your core points is that for most people recycling is ,
based on John Tierney's quote, "performing a rite of atonement for the sin
of excess." Like many blanket statements, this one has a small kernel of
truth but on the whole I disagree with this assertion. Americans recycle
because it is consistent with our national character not to be consciously
wasteful. For most of our history, Americans were avid recyclers mostly
due to the need to preserve the useful value of scarce commodities. The
era of plentiful and cheap commodities and manufactured goods only began
after WWII. The industrial system that produced them did so without regard
to what should be done with these materials when their initial utility to
the consumer was exhausted. The long term sensible solution is to develop
new industrial systems to reuse and recycle what we no longer need.
Disposal is really the short-term solution because it takes time for these
new industrial patterns to evolve. Yet this short-term solution has
mutated into the preferred solution for our unwanted goods for reasons not
connected with efficiency but expediency. As I am sure other readers have
pointed out to you, current disposal pricing does not address the potential
future problems that they may posed by landfills. In my view, it is truly
selfish to bequeath to your grandchildren and mine these future
environmental headaches because want a simple solution for the by-products
of our present lifestyle.

But, as your essay points out, isn't it hypocritical for people who are
concerned about waste to engage in recycling that is economically wasteful?
You bet it is! Municipal recycling should be practiced on both an
effective and efficient basis. Yet your argument that municipal recycling
usually doesn't make economic sense is both untrue and unfair. It is
untrue because it ignores the careful findings of cities like Seattle that
show that total solid waste costs are lower with recycling. It is unfair
because there are thousands of collection systems in the U.S. and there
isn't enough information to tell you, me or anyone else which ones are
managing both solid waste and recyclables inefficiently. Here is where you
missed some great opportunities to prevent economic waste by recycling:

a. You should be supporting the EPA's Full Cost Accounting initiative which
promotes identifying all costs associated with managing solid waste. The
states of Florida, Georgia, Indiana and North Carolina require their
municipalities to report the full cost of their solid waste management
practices. I would think you would want every state to require their
municipalities to provide full disclosure to their businesses and residents
on what it costs to manage solid waste and recyclabes.

b. You should be supporting Pay As You Throw practices where the user pays
for every bag or container of waste that is collected. I think you would
agree that it is only fair that people who generate less waste should pay
less. Incidentally, recycling always goes up when Pay As You Throw pricing
is in place.

Finally, I do agree with you that not every reason given in support of
recycling makes sense. For instance, you are correct in pointing out that
for most of the U.S. disposal capacity is not a problem. But most of the
other problems you mentioned about recycling are not valid or getting
solved. For example, numerous industries will tell you that using
recyclable materials does save energy. At worst, recycling is energy
neutral. The pollution created by collecting recyclables is easily solved
by more efficient collection practices such as better routing or using
vehicles that can collect waste and recyclables at the same time. Finally,
don't forget that recycling is one way to make important industrial
commodities affordable for other countries. Countries, like those in East
Asia that don't have significant forest resources, depend on the wastepaper
exported to them from the U.S. for the paper packaging and products
manufactured by their industries.

As far as I'm concerned, only waste is really a waste.


Roger M. Guttentag
(610) 584-2740