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[GreenYes] The Death of Recycling

I have to say I'm surprised that there have been NO postings on greenyes
in reaction to the "Death of Recycling" posting from John Reindl over a
week ago. I expected it to stimulate MUCH philosophical discussion on
this, a premier list of Zero Waste advocates....

Below is an example of reaction [attribution intentionally removed] to
the Palmer article on another listserv I belong to...there had been a
string of reactions prior to this posting from today, all taking offense
with some aspects of Palmer's assertions or attitudes, and many by
extension, taking offense to Zero Waste and its advocates.

Any reactions?

Pete Pasterz


I have to say, I hate the Zero Waste movement and will resist any
efforts to align either RecycleMania or CURC to it.

First, it is promoting a concept that is impossible by the laws of
physics. No process is 100% efficient. Thus, any process shall produce
waste. Period. There is NO zero-waste process in nature. It is a
question of what happens to that waste that is the issue.

Second, I have witnessed several folks promote "Zero Waste Successes"
that are really "zero waste frauds." Backhauling trash from an event in
a remote location to a trash bin in another area is NOT Zero Waste. It
is just moving a lot of waste. Not putting out trash barrels for an
event, only to see the trash littered around campus or thrown into
existing trash dumpsters to make them overflow is NOT zero waste. It is
only creating headaches for the grounds and custodial staff. Diverting
50% of waste from an event is impressive, but not Zero Waste.

Third, is that our existing recycling & diversion rates are already
suspect. Collecting stuff for recycling is not really recycling if you
are just passing junk along to a mill who has to screen it out and
dispose of it. This is an especially troubling issue with single-stream
programs shipping stuff to China. I have heard reports of as much as
40% of that material being landfilled as contamination (China is without
a native paper industry and so desperate for fiber that they don't seem
to mind, but is this really recycling?). Is this really recycling, or
is it exporting trash? If I told you I was going to ship 40 tons of
trash to China for them to landfill, folks would demonize me. However,
if I ship 100 tons of single-stream recycling to China, knowing that 40
tons of that will have to be screened out and landfilled, I am then
lauded for doing an exceptional job? In many areas, achieving a certain
"diversion" or recycling number has become so important that what
recycling or diversion "is" has become irrelevant. And now, we are
going to chase another unattainable number, further risking that how we
achieve the number is meaningless, as long as we achieve it?

Fourth, despite all of the money that has gone into promoting zero waste
over the past few years, I have a basic question that has never been
answered. The question is now 2 decades old from a little old lady here
in Western Mass. Back almost 20 years ago, during the rush of the
modern wave of recycling, there was a meeting in the hill towns around
Northampton. Experts from DEP, EPA, and the environmental community
were promoting how recycling and waste reduction was going be so
successful that it would eliminate the need for landfills. A little old
lady dumbfounded the panel and crowd with a basic question: "what do we
do with condoms?" In the age of AIDS, you are not going to promote not
using them. As many strides as have been made in making them thinner
and more sensitive, you cannot waste-reduce them. You are not going to
reuse them. And in almost 20 years of doing this all over the country,
I have yet to find a market that would even consider recycling them.
Her point and mine is that there is always going to be waste. I have
posed her question to Zero Waste "experts" all around the country. I
have received lots of eye-rolling. I have received either snickers or
condemnation about how much of an a-hole I am. But I have never heard
her question answered.

I am all for continued process improvement. I am all for sustainable
manufacturing processes that incorporate life-cycle-design,
cradle-to-cradle concepts, designing for recycling, etc. I am all for
green purchasing practices and think we all have a long way to go on
that front. If we want to promote those things, count me in!!!

However, if we just want to jump on a Zero-Waste bandwagon because it is
the latest buzz word, count me out. I don't want to threaten to take my
ball and go home, but it may eventually come to that.

Our current success with the public perception is tentative at best. We
have a RecycleMania competition with more holes in the rules than a
colander (for example, I would love to count the Red Sox box score with
only David Ortiz's stats, or love to say, well David Ortiz hit 233 home
runs for his career so let's assume everyone on the roster does that).
We have a CURC organization that after more than a decade has struggled
to gain traction with anyone on campus other than Recycling Coordinators
(not APPA, not Nacubo, etc.). We have constant challenges to the
"recycling is good" message that we seem stunned by and seem like we are
not fully ready to discuss and defend other than with outrage. And now
we want to distance ourselves even more from reality and the mainstream
by linking Zero Waste to our efforts? I think we really need to
re-evaluate that idea.

Some folks have discovered bits of the history of the zero waste
movement. Here is some more general info (at the risk of being
stereotypical). Before recycling was "accepted" and incorporated into
daily life, recycling experts were mostly advocates. All very natural
in the evolution of any program. They did a good job. However, when
recycling became accepted, it changed the need from advocates to
managers. Some folks made that transition. Some were not able to and
had not ability to be anything other than an advocate. Unfortunately,
rather than taking the advocacy to more of a watchdog role (such as to
prevent questionable reporting numbers, or to ensure that buyers
followed existing green procurement policies), they could only be
advocates. And what better to ensure that you will always have a career
as an advocate than to get people to commit to trying to achieve
something unattainable (zero waste). They keep their role of only being
"pure" and "never comprimising", and sneering at those with a lesser
commitment than they have. Fine for them. Just not a black hole that I
want to see all of our hard work and success over the past 20 years
sucked into.

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