Sustainability 101

The Reign Of Recycling Is NOT Over: A Roundup of Responses To John Tierney

Over the past week, the worlds of recycling and sustainability have been buzzing about John Tierney’s New York Times article “The Reign of Recycling.” Tierney’s piece, which restates an old argument he made in 1996 against recycling, prompted an outcry. In it he concludes:

“… cities have been burying garbage for thousands of years, and it’s still the easiest and cheapest solution for trash.”

But as Great Forest and many other organizations and passionate individuals have pointed out, Tierney misses the point.  In our response, which was published in Waste Dive, we argue that Tierney glosses over the fact that trash has many components.  So if you decide to landfill your entire waste stream, you will be burying a lot of recyclable commodity that has value, not only to the environment, but also to the economy. We believe in a future with closed loops, not landfills.

Here’s a roundup of some of the responses to John Tierney’s piece:

Trash has many components and simply burying them all in a landfill is not cost effective, nor is it good for the future… Some parts of the waste stream are difficult in some markets, like how plastics do not make much sense in New York — where #1 and #2 have strong markets, other types do not. But in other markets, this is not the case. Plastic recycling is currently more cost effective in India and China than in the U.S. When the price of oil rises — and it will — the demand for recycled materials like plastics will increase. So even if it is cheaper and easier right now to landfill instead of recycle plastic, this will change.

Disrupting or rolling back on recycling would mean rolling back on all the investment and progress made in recycling over the years, including money and effort spent on developing and implementing programs, education and training.

Like all commodities, prices for recycled paper or metals will wax and wane. “Markets were much better three-and-a-half years ago,” says Miller (Chaz Miller, director of policy and advocacy for the National Waste and Recycling Association) “You have to take a longer view. This article could not have been written in 2011.”

This focus on short-term economic viability is problematic, as it disregards the critical need for a more circular system of manufacturing and consumption. We don’t push for better education or health care based on whether they are economically justifiable institutions — we do it because there is a social imperative. Telling corporations and the public that recycling — save for a very select few materials — is essentially a waste undermines the need for more comprehensive strategies supporting sustainable development: reusing materials when we can, recycling those materials when we can’t, and decreasing the consumption of unsustainable materials bound for landfill.

While Tierney writes: 

“To offset the greenhouse impact of one passenger’s round-trip flight between New York and London, you’d have to recycle roughly 40,000 plastic bottles, assuming you fly coach.”

Adam Minter counters: 

“in 2010, Americans consumed 42.6 billion plastic water bottles, alone… That’s enough plastic water bottle waste to offset the greenhouse gases for 1,065,000 round-trips between London and New York in coach every year…. And it just gets better. Bottled water sales grew 7.4% in the U.S. last year. Not only that, Americans use many, many other types of recyclable plastic bottles – including detergent bottles, by the millions (or billions?). In other words – many more hundreds of thousands of greenhouse gas offsets between London and New York!”

By educating and engaging individuals to recycle more of the right things the right way—at home, at work and on-the-go—we can help make recycling more economically viable, creating jobs and providing recyclables to manufacture new products and packaging, while continuing to reap greater environmental and community benefits… The business of recycling is complex, but the act of recycling can be easy and made even easier for Americans.

Cities pay to send waste to landfills — if they send to a recycling facility it costs $0. Many cities share the revenue when commodities markets are strong. For instance, New York City pays over $100 per ton to landfills in Pennsylvania, Ohio and South Carolina. For the 150K tons of paper recycled by New York City residents annually, New York City is paid a minimum of $10 per ton as part of a long term contract.

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