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Beyond the Trash Can
Let me begin with a confession.
I worked for ten years at Tellus Institute, a nonprofit environmental research group in Boston. Not only did we study recycling for most of those years, we also had our own in-house paper recycling program. We had plenty of paper to recycle: in the course of our research we were constantly receiving, reviewing, and creating documents; at the end of any project, if not before, most of the accumulated papers had to be removed in order to make room for the next project. Like most of the staff, I kept a recycling bin close to my desk. According to the company that picked up our recycling, we recovered at least 3 tons, about 50 trees' worth, of paper annually.
For many years our recycling program only accepted white office paper. Fax paper, colored paper, glossy advertising, and other types of paper still had to be thrown out. From time to time we received elaborate reports with colored-paper inserts or chapter dividers between the white-paper text sections. When I was done with such reports, I usually removed the staples or tore apart the binding, separated and discarded the colored pages, and recycled the remaining white paper. But one day, rushing to meet a deadline on an important project I was managing, I tossed an entire small publication, printed on mixed colors of paper, into the trash.
Minutes later, as luck would have it, a friend of mine who was working on the same project came into my office. It was a familiar, comfortable situation; she and I had often worked together on similar tasks. As we settled down to attack the problem of the day, she smiled at me—but only for a moment. Almost immediately, she spotted the publication I had just thrown out, scowled and pulled it out of my trash can. "I thought you BELIEVED in recycling," she said sadly, as she began ripping out the colored pages so that the remaining white pages could be recovered.
Recycling As Religion
Like my co-worker and me, millions of people do believe in recycling, and act on that belief on a regular basis. "In the first week in November 1992, more adults took part in recycling than voted," says Jerry Powell, editor of Resource Recycling magazine. Recycling, according to Powell, is "more popular than democracy."
Both the extent of recycling and the speed of its expansion are remarkable. Curbside collection, in which a truck picks up newspapers, containers, and other materials from households, is fast becoming standard in urban and suburban areas. By 1994 there were more than 7200 curbside collection programs in the United States, serving more than 40% of the population; virtually all of these programs were less than six years old. Hundreds of new curbside programs are still being initiated every year. As extensive as it is, though, curbside collection is not the only form of recycling. Additional materials are recovered through countless drop-off centers, commercial and office programs, and other channels. All this activity has had noticeable effects on the solid waste stream that flows out of homes and businesses. One study estimated that 21% of all municipal solid waste was recycled or composted in 1992, up from 10% just seven years earlier.
Why do we recycle? Rarely is there a monetary reward. In most towns, no one pays you to put out your recyclables at the curb. Our office recycling program did not pay us for the documents we saved from the trash can. The increasingly common recycling boxes in public places rely on social pressure rather than financial incentives. Recycling is an impressively pure form of altruism, a widespread commitment to the greater good. It is especially worth noting today, in an era of cutbacks and conservatism, that large numbers of people do behave altruistically on a regular basis.
Who is it that recycles? A handful of survey researchers have studied participation in recycling, with mixed results. Not surprisingly, they have found that altruistic motivations for recycling are important in all social groups; other findings in this literature are less conclusive. Some have reported that recycling is more common among women, whites, and high-income, high-education households, while other, conflicting studies have found that the rate of recycling is about the same for all demographic and socioeconomic groups. A recent analysis of neighborhoods within four Boston-area communities found that recycling rates depend on the percentage of the adult population that has graduated from college, and on the amount that each town spends on public education about recycling. Income, race, and other factors had no separate effect. But such demographic research reveals only part of the story of recycling.
For municipal planners and managers, recycling is necessarily a matter for detailed calculations. For the participants, it is more often seen as part of a bigger picture. We recycle because we consider it worthwhile to conserve landfill space, or save energy and materials. In short, we recycle because we believe it is the right thing to do, because it is good for the environment.
In one sense, altruistic public behavior seems out of step with the 1990s, an era when individualistic, selfish voices have increasingly shaped the contemporary discussion of economic policy. But the misstep may be the interpretation of recycling as solely an economic policy. In another sense, the commitment to recycling echoes the tenor of the times, as moralism and professions of faith have become more and more prominent in social and political debate. If "family values" are now acknowledged to be a vague but powerful force in public life, why not recognize a similar role for ecological values?
Suppose, then, that we view recycling as akin to a religious practice, an organized expression of widely held ecological values. The language and symbolism of recycling support this view. Any church needs ritual observances, and curbside recycling provides the opportunity for the weekly offering and collection. After collection there is the modern miracle of transubstantiation, as old packages and papers come to life again. In states that have deposits on beverage containers, it is common to speak of the process of redemption.
The image of recycling as religion pervades the news media. "Boston has been slow among cities and towns," said the Boston Globe, "to get religion on curbside recycling, but starting this morning the administration is pursuing its new trash program with all the zeal of a convert." A Wall Street Journal article, entitled "Curbside Recycling Comforts the Soul, But Benefits Are Scant," observed that recycling "makes people feel good. For many, a little trash sorting has become a form of penance to acknowledge that the values of our high-consumption society don't always nurture the soul."
Those who do get religion, the true believers, often display intense commitment to a higher objective, even at the cost of considerable personal effort. My friend who insisted on correcting my momentary lapse in office recycling is far from the most extreme. I know someone who drives back and forth across the Bay Area in California to find recycling centers that accept small quantities of hard-to-recycle household goods. The damage she does to the environment by driving so far almost certainly exceeds the good she does by recycling a little more.
I've heard more than one story of domestic conflict, in households that already recycle all the big, easy things, about the urgency of reusing or recycling a few additional items. Should you throw out used plastic sandwich bags or wash and dry them for reuse? (My advice: of course it is desirable to reuse containers and packaging whenever it is feasible; rigid sandwich-sized plastic containers may be easier to reuse than bags. However, if discarding a few sandwich bags is your greatest transgression, it is time to direct your environmental efforts to problems bigger than yourself.) Often, when people hear that I am studying recycling, they ask my permission to throw out one or another marginally reusable or recyclable product. I am not alone, it seems, in wanting to confess my sins in this area.
Recycling as religion arises from shared values; it provides public rituals that reaffirm those values; the faithful organize aspects of their lives around it, even at noticeable cost and inconvenience to themselves. But the ecological values that form the basis for this behavior are complex and multi-faceted. What accounts for the emphasis on recycling in particular? Despite studying it professionally for several years, I find it hard to argue that waste management is our most urgent environmental problem. At most, it is one among many issues that clamor for our attention. Other problems pose more serious threats to our well-being than the disposal of solid waste.
What distinguishes recycling is not its importance, but rather the ease with which individuals can participate, and the visibility of actions taken to promote the common good. You may care passionately about the threat of global warming or the destruction of the rain forests—but you can't have an immediate effect on these problems that is perceptible to yourself or others. The rain forest salvation truck doesn't make weekly pickups, let alone the clean air truck. When a 1990 Gallup poll asked people what they had done in connection with environmental problems, 80 to 85% answered that they or their households had participated in various aspects of recycling; no other significant steps had been taken by a majority of respondents. Like the drunk looking for his wallet under the lamppost, we may focus on recycling because it is where the immediate tasks are best illuminated.
Faith in the Free Market
Recycling is also illuminated from another direction, casting a very different shadow. A second great system of secular belief, faith in the free market, offers a contrasting vision of recycling and the environment. The "anti-recyclers," as they have been called, look at recycling from a purely economic point of view. They claim that the government should not set recycling targets or subsidize local recycling programs. Just get the prices right, allow unfettered competition, and the market will achieve the most efficient level of recycling, as with everything else.
The anti-recycling argument briefly seemed to have been undercut by the 1995 surge in prices for recycled materials, which greatly increased the profitability of recycling (see Chapter 4). However, by early 1996 prices were declining from the 1995 peaks, although they may not fall all the way back to the 1992–1993 lows. When prices fall, they drag down the profits of many recycling programs—and therefore, the anti-recyclers will likely return in force. Thus it is worth looking at their critique in some detail.
The basic point of the anti-recycling position is that the decision to recycle is just a business proposition, a matter of economic calculation like any other. For example, Christopher Boerner and Kenneth Chilton, economists at Washington University in St. Louis, argue that "markets—even those for recycled products—work best when relatively free of government intervention.... Local governments should take a hard-nosed approach to recycling by continuing to collect those materials [on which they make a profit] ... and by abandoning other, uneconomical curbside programs."
Business journalism repeatedly emphasizes this point. In the Wall Street Journal article mentioned earlier, Jeff Bailey argues that recycling is usually uneconomic, quoting municipal officials, waste management industry executives, and consultants, on the additional costs imposed by recycling (as of late 1994, when prices were just beginning to rise). The landfill shortage that motivated many recycling programs, says Bailey, was always imaginary; there is enough landfill capacity for at least 16 years of disposal, and it is easy to create more when it is needed.
Bailey also debunks the legend of the Mobro 4000, the garbage barge from Long Island that was turned away from one port after another in 1987. At the time, the voyage of the Mobro was widely interpreted as evidence that there would soon be no place left to put our garbage, confirming the worst fears of a landfill shortage and emphasizing the need for recycling. The revisionist history, supported by other sources as well as Bailey, attributes the Mobro's troubles to an unsuccessful deal between a Long Island Mafia boss (now in jail for conspiring to murder other trash haulers) and an inexperienced barge owner. The Mobro arrived in several southern states, and later in Caribbean ports, before signing firm agreements with any local landfills, leading to suspicion that it carried hazardous waste. Other garbage shipments to the same destinations, with signed disposal agreements in hand before they departed, continued during and after the Mobro's journey.
One of the most thoughtful critiques of recycling in the business press comes from Frances Cairncross, environment editor of The Economist. Surveying both European and American evidence, she also finds that landfilling is cheap and recycling is expensive, in part for lack of markets for recycled materials: "Voters appear to love recycling. It seems to meet some deep human need to atone for modern materialism. Unfortunately, people do not seem to feel quite the same craving to buy products made of recycled materials."
Traditional disposal is so cheap, and accounts for so little of household expenditure, says Cairncross, that no plausible policy of economic incentives will lead people to throw out much less. Landfilling would remain a bargain even with a generous price increase to reflect its environmental costs. Cairncross recommends a reduced emphasis on recycling, to be replaced by negotiation with rural communities or foreign countries that are willing to provide increased disposal capacity.
This survey of the critics would not be complete without a look at the underground classic of the anti-recycling movement, Judd Alexander's intriguing but idiosyncratic treatise, In Defense of Garbage. Alexander, a former executive at American Can Company and James River Corporation (a paper company), challenges many aspects of modern recycling beliefs and practices.
Alexander argues that little of value is lost in our trash cans. Less than 1% of all nonrenewable resources used in the United States ends up as municipal waste, a pittance in comparison to the huge quantities of fuels and construction materials that the nation consumes. Paper, the leading renewable resource in the trash, is largely produced from managed tree farms grown for that purpose, not from natural forests. The individual products commonly identified as symbols of wastefulness, says Alexander, represent insignificant waste management burdens, and bring substantial savings and convenience to their users.
Drawing on his experience in industry, Alexander is at his best in describing the benefits of new packaging technologies. Specialized, multilayer plastic packages developed for lettuce, cheese, meat, and other foods have dramatically reduced spoilage, food waste, and shipping costs. Such packages are virtually certain to be nonrecyclable. It is unlikely, he says, that packaging will be redesigned for ease of recycling or disposal, since packaging materials cost much more (sometimes hundreds of times more) to produce than to discard. In fact, the cost of production, not the comparatively minor cost of disposal, has driven the ongoing reduction in packaging weight.
Although the anti-recyclers make many important arguments about the economics of the issue, one senses that they (with the occasional exception, such as Cairncross) are fundamentally unsympathetic to the environmental objectives of recycling advocates. The critique of recycling turns a bit irritable, if not outright cranky, at times. Thus Alexander, for instance, finds aspects of contemporary recycling policy to be not only expensive, but also inequitable: "If 5 is an appropriate deposit for a beer can weighing a shade over half an ounce, then $9.19 would be the right deposit for a six-and-a-half pound Sunday newspaper." However, beverage container deposits were introduced in part as litter prevention measures—and few people are so intoxicated by the Sunday paper that they toss it out the car window.
An unusually prominent and vehement anti-recycling broadside appeared just before this book went to press. A New York Times Magazine article, "Recycling is Garbage," by John Tierney, mocks and distorts the environmental arguments for recycling at some length. Citing the anti-environmental views of several neoconservative "think tanks" as his principal sources, Tierney concludes that environmental enthusiasm for recycling is entirely misplaced. Not content with simply reporting the real costs of recycling, he also embarks on a financial fantasy designed to show that the expense of recycling is absurdly large.
First, Tierney calculates the cost of paying everyone $12 per hour for time spent in household recycling. Then he adds $4 a week for rental of a square foot of floor space in everyone's kitchen to store the recycling containers. These fictitious costs are 14 times as large as the real costs of New York City's recycling program, allowing him to claim that recycling a ton of material "really" costs as much as buying a one-ton used car.
Excerpted from Why Do We Recycle? by Frank Ackerman. Copyright © 1997 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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Chapter 1. Beyond the Trash Can
Chapter 2. Getting the Prices Wrong
Chapter 3. More Than the Market
Chapter 4. A Truck Is a Terrible Thing to Waste
Chapter 5. Drink Boxes, Styrofoam, and PVC
Chapter 6. The Dot Heard around the World
Chapter 7. Bottle Bills, Litter, and the Cost of Convenience
Chapter 8. Organic Waste and the Virtue of Inaction
Chapter 9. The Hidden Utility
Chapter 10. Material Use and Sustainable Affluence