Recently, The New York Times published a piece arguing that “the Reign of Recycling” is all but over. The author John Tierney argues that despite the fact that recycling has become a political and moral high ground, it actually incurs more financial and environmental costs to recycle and reuse rather than to just send all waste to landfill. Such a message against our current paradigm certainly feels sacrilegious. But when the facts are considered objectively, does his argument actually hold water?
Tierney lists some logical-sounding reasons recycling might be futile, or even environmentally harmful: washing out plastic containers with “water heated by coal-derived electricity,” can result in more carbon emissions than simply throwing them out, for instance. That sounds feasible until you consider the fact that over 60% of electricity generated in the U.S. uses a source other than coal. Coal use for electric power has decreased steadily in recent decades and continues on that downward trend. So basing the futility of recycling on the energy wasted to wash out the containers seems circumstantial at best.
Tierney also views landfills favorably, arguing that there is more than enough room to go around. He writes:
“One of the original goals of the recycling movement was to avert a supposed crisis because there was no room left in the nation’s landfills. But that media-inspired fear was never realistic in a country with so much open space.”
This boast of land-richness is the unfortunate mindset that has led Americans to become the most wasteful people in the history of the world, still to this day consuming more and leaving more carbon footprint than any other nation. We’ve got resources, we’ll use it; we’ve got land, we’ll use it to bury all of our filth! Who cares what other countries are doing, those countries don’t have wide expansive wilderness in which to dump all their garbage.
Aside from the flawed moral underpinning, his arguments are partial and selective. He posits that rural communities “welcome” landfills to receive economic benefits, and that in such a large country as ours, all trash generated by Americans for the next 1,000 years would be contained in just 0.1% of our grazing land. These rural landfills, he writes, are hidden by “plenty of greenery” and will eventually be turned into parks like in Staten Island. This speculation of course completely overlooks the fact that in rural communities so lacking in economic opportunities as to welcome landfills, it’s improbable that the said landfills will eventually become green parks for the enjoyment of their small populations.
While he paints such an idyllic picture of landfills, he scorns composting centers as the nadir of cleanliness with “nauseating odors, swarming rats and defecating sea gulls.” Does Tierney really miss that landfills are all those things, multiplied by so many factors?
He also attempts to bring in the outside examples the “affluent people” aspire to in their environmentalism: the Nordic countries. In support of sending garbage to landfills and incinerating them for energy, Tierney writes:
“Modern incinerators, while politically unpopular in the United States, release so few pollutants that they’ve been widely accepted in the eco-conscious countries of Northern Europe and Japan for generating clean energy.”
This is also superficially reasonable-sounding. It’s true that in these countries burning garbage to generate energy has taken firm hold. What he is omitting blindly is that in all of these countries, recycling is the law. If he ever travels to Scandinavia and makes his case against recycling, he would be heavily criticized and ridiculed. Official site of Sweden proudly proclaims that “more than 99 per cent of all household waste is recycled in one way or another” in their country, and that they generate the least landfill waste almost anywhere in the world. And even so, they officially state that they can do even more to shift “from burning to material recycling, by promoting recycling.” Their recycling is so structured that they even collect unused medicine. Their waste management focuses and depends on recycling and composting first and foremost before incineration comes into play.
This doesn’t just apply to Sweden, but also to other countries who have far more advanced waste management system than we do. In South Korea, everything must be disposed of separately: in households, you must dispose your food waste separated from other garbage. Even different kinds of plastic must be sorted out. All waste must be in specific, labeled plastic bags that you must purchase (which in turn is used to fund waste treatment costs). Should you fail to do so, not only are you fined, you’ll be shunned by neighbors and your garbage man will refuse to pick up your waste. All businesses are required by law to recycle and compost, and at a fast food restaurant, you must throw out your compost, dry waste, papers, and different kinds of plastics separately. Similar astringent recycling is practiced in Japan. My cousin who lives in Japan was shocked to discover that in America, one isn’t required to recycle bottle and bottle cap separately (or, recycle at all).
This must sound like a lot of hassle to one like Tierney, but to people who are accustomed to such orderliness, this is normal behavior. Still he mocks that recycling “makes people feel virtuous, especially affluent people who feel guilty about their enormous environmental footprint. It is less an ethical activity than a religious ritual, like the ones performed by Catholics to obtain indulgences for their sins.” He argues that like religious ritual, recycling should be voluntary, not mandatory, activity–and that governments have no right to impinge upon individual’s right to just disregard recycling.
On the contrary, recycling isn’t just there as moral clutch for “affluent people” he keeps mentioning. First, the desire to be good citizens in our communities and in the greater world is common in all of us, no matter what our socioeconomic status. Polluted Earth impacts all of us, and most of us are well aware of that fact–it’s not a class-based statement. So his attempts to characterize recycling as a pretentious status symbol is small-minded, cynical, polarizing, and self-serving–just like the way some politicians will create distinctions between demographics to meet their ends.
Secondly, recycling works. It is the law of countries he mentions as examples of advanced waste management; those countries base their systems first and foremost on recycling and composting, to the effect that overall landfill waste is greatly reduced, dramatically lowering their carbon footprint.
Third–his final statement that “cities have been burying garbage for thousands of years, and it’s still the easiest and cheapest solution for trash” reveals precisely the kind of mindset that has led our planet to its sickened state, today. Yes, dumpling waste into landfill is “easy” and “cheap” just like a McDonald’s burger: it’s also unhealthy (think toxic waste seeping into our land), harmful to the environment, and most of all, we just don’t want it anymore. We want to move forward, progress, and do things better. Truth is that as a country, we’re more like a developing country than a developed one when it comes to our waste management. Easy no longer serves us. We want recycling.
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Photo: Timothy Takemoto via Flickr