What a waste
February 16, 2005 10:40 AM   Subscribe

Recycling ... Is Garbage. John Tierney looks at the reality of recycling and concludes it is largely a wasted effort.
Appeared in the NY Times in June, 1996.
posted by knave (41 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
Has anything changed in recycling in the last 9 years, knave?
posted by Doug at 10:42 AM on February 16, 2005


Considering how general his argument is (did you even read it? 2 minutes is very fast!), I think it is still applicable and worthy of consideration. For example:
Yes, a lot of trees have been cut down to make today's newspaper. But even more trees will probably be planted in their place. America's supply of timber has been increasing for decades, and the nation's forests have three times more wood today than in 1920. "We're not running out of wood, so why do we worry so much about recycling paper?" asks Jerry Taylor, the director of natural resource studies at the Cato Institute. "Paper is an agricultural product, made from trees grown specifically for paper production. Acting to conserve trees by recycling paper is like acting to conserve cornstalks by cutting back on corn consumption."
posted by knave at 10:50 AM on February 16, 2005


Recycling a 9-year-old piece of garbage. What a waste.
posted by cholstro at 10:53 AM on February 16, 2005


This article is very out of date. When NYC reinstated mandatory residential recycling within the past two years it actually has a plan to make money on it. That sounds good to me.
posted by MattS at 10:53 AM on February 16, 2005


9 YEARS!? Man, the older I get the worse my math is. Time sure flies.
posted by tomplus2 at 10:56 AM on February 16, 2005


Ow, my freaking ears eyes!
posted by Plutor at 11:07 AM on February 16, 2005


A lot HAS changed.
posted by Floydd at 11:10 AM on February 16, 2005


Yup. It's true. We've done a great job at reforestation in North America. I worked as a tree planter for 3 years in BC, and put in tens of thousands of trees myself.

Here's the problem though. A tree farm is just that. A farm. Not a forest. This is fine since we plan on cutting it down again at some point within the next 50 odd years, BUT we are still cutting down our old growth forests to make asswipe. This sucks, and it should stop. If we can offset our need for oldgrowth through recycling, then we should. Even if it may have been cheaper just to cut down the trees in the first place.

Simply dismissing the entire recycling movement as useless is idiotic, but well in keeping with these times we live in.
posted by Rusty Iron at 11:12 AM on February 16, 2005


All this carbon that spent millions of years getting deposited down under the earth's crust has been coming out and going into the atmosphere over the short course of the last two centuries, and thus it's imparative that we get as many petroleum products back into landfills as we can. So be sure to throw away your plastics instead of recycling them. (an argument I remember seeing in a sidebar in the utne reader around 1996)
posted by damehex at 11:12 AM on February 16, 2005


Yes, a lot of trees have been cut down to make today's newspaper. But even more trees will probably be planted in their place. America's supply of timber has been increasing for decades, and the nation's forests have three times more wood today than in 1920. "We're not running out of wood, so why do we worry so much about recycling paper?" asks Jerry Taylor, the director of natural resource studies at the Cato Institute. "Paper is an agricultural product, made from trees grown specifically for paper production. Acting to conserve trees by recycling paper is like acting to conserve cornstalks by cutting back on corn consumption."


I've heard similar claims about forest cover, er "amounts of wood" before. But I have also heard the exact opposite. As well... even if "amount of wood" claim is correct it would seem this is because of an increase in trash forests. (those tracks of tress that are planted all in a row, with no undergrowth that support very little wildlife), therefore a decrease in biodiversity is taking place.
If we do not recycle it means more stuff is ending up in landfills, and landfills have a poor rate of decomposition of materials, even paper takes an awfully long period of time of breakdown when buried sans oxygen. And this from a fellow at the Cato... (grits teeth). The author thinks there is no shortage of landfill space, but I tell ya anything reasonable to make those things smaller has got to be good.

incidentally "more trees will probably be planted in their place" is 1) ambiguous and 2) well duh, you have to plant more trees then you remove just to maintain the same level, the rate of sapling survival can be pretty low.

This from just the excerpted piece above, reading through the whole text give me a headache. It's pretty tedious and not all that good.
sorry
posted by edgeways at 11:16 AM on February 16, 2005


The words are so big, it MUST BE TRUE
posted by Outlawyr at 11:19 AM on February 16, 2005


A U.S. Forest Service plan for California's Sierra Nevada region has prompted lawsuits from the state's attorney general, environmental groups and the timber industry.

clearing the "old-growth".
posted by petebest at 11:28 AM on February 16, 2005


I highly recommend the Penn & Teller program Bullshit! where they debunked (or whatever you want to call it) the efficacy of recycling.
posted by dios at 11:30 AM on February 16, 2005


Steamboats are inefficient as well.
posted by xmutex at 11:34 AM on February 16, 2005


Here's another great article.

Oh and this was from 2005:

U.S. and Canadian environmental groups hope to change Alberta logging practices by generating consumer pressure with a full-page ad in the New York Times that links lingerie catalogues with the destruction of the boreal forest.

The ad, which ran in Friday's paper, says such catalogues are printed on paper from forests in Alberta's northern foothills. It urges readers to pressure lingerie company Victoria's Secret to stop buying paper that comes from "endangered forests."

"The cost of these catalogues isn't sexy," reads the ad, which features a full-length photo of a bustier-wearing model carrying a sketched-in chainsaw. "They're printed on paper made from some of the world's last remaining endangered forests."


Yeah I know it's not an unbiased source, but this seemed like the perfect place for it...
posted by lazymonster at 11:40 AM on February 16, 2005


I highly recommend this refutation of Tierney's old article . Or this perspective on Penn & Teller's "debunking."
posted by Cassford at 11:48 AM on February 16, 2005


I highly recommend the Penn & Teller program Bullshit

I watched a few episodes of this show and found it to be mostly... crap. Slight of hand magicians trying to be 20/20 is not a recipe for high quality programming. (And I say this as a fan of their past work)
posted by gwint at 11:49 AM on February 16, 2005


Simply dismissing the entire recycling movement as useless is idiotic, but well in keeping with these times we live in.
Exactly.

Even if recycling isn't cost-effective, doesn't it promote a healthier mentality than the "disposable" mentality that our society has adopted? Since when is being resposible for your own waste a bad thing?
posted by LunaticFringe at 12:11 PM on February 16, 2005


gwint, I was also a big fan of P&T as magicians, and will at least give them props for truth in advertising, as far as naming their show goes.
posted by soyjoy at 12:26 PM on February 16, 2005


Penn & Teller's program Bullshit!

They did not completely debunk recycling. They even stated that aluminum recycling IS effective and Efficient. They did not make a good case against glass recycling.

Plastics require far more energy than would seem to make it useful to recycle and paper, while not being very efficient and could be unhealthy, unless protective clothing is involved, still seems to be the better thing for the environment.
posted by Nauip at 12:29 PM on February 16, 2005


Anyone who found the linked article an interesting and insightful look at contemporary recycling issues might also find considerable food for thought at this World Wide Web page listing the "Cool Site of the Year Awards" for 1996. That Netscape Navigator sure is all the rage these days, eh? Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to give that new Screaming Trees album a listen.
posted by gompa at 12:32 PM on February 16, 2005


So is this post just part of the political push to allow logging in the old growth forests?
posted by destro at 12:45 PM on February 16, 2005


Just because it's nine years old doesn't make this any less valuable. The author is ignorant of ecology, but his main point is valid---recycling is inefficient.

Recycling doesn't work all that well because the things we manufacture aren't designed to be recycled. Recycling products consumes fossil fuels when it's hauled around and releases nasty chemicals into the air among other things. The recycling we have today tries to mitigate the damage we are doing without addressing the problems of over consumption.

By not recycling, as the author suggests, and maintaining the levels of material consumption, we only spew more gasses into the air.

We have to design products that are easily converted into valuable raw-materials for other industries. There are ways to do this. Read Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough.
posted by recurve at 12:56 PM on February 16, 2005


Recycling useless? No.
Unrealistic? Yes.

I am responsible for my own waste; I flush it and I haul it out to the curb. If anyone else wants to deal with it thereafter, they are more than welcome to it.
posted by mischief at 1:08 PM on February 16, 2005


This American Life had a show about garbage, where they briefly go over the argument that paper is by far the most important thing to recycle by far, and glass the least.
posted by abcde at 1:12 PM on February 16, 2005


I did not know Penn and Teller were scientists. Goes to show you what I learn at MetaFilter. Fascinating . . .

/sarcasm

BTW, I think it's even more important that we consume less, but I'll still recycle as long as I can.
posted by tr33hggr at 1:20 PM on February 16, 2005


(Real audio link, btw)
posted by abcde at 1:25 PM on February 16, 2005


Just because an article pre-dates MetaFilter does not make it the best of the web.

And Penn and Teller's BULLSHIT is excellent. Its entertaining and informative (if skewed but so is everything else). I loved the PETA episode.
posted by fenriq at 1:25 PM on February 16, 2005


Cecil weighs in.
posted by nomad at 1:32 PM on February 16, 2005


Ok, Maybe rummaging through a dumpster to find 4 ounces of recyclable paper and a glass bottle is a waste of time/money. But taking the minute to put the Sunday paper, some bottles, and whatnot into bins where my local garbage carrier will take them for recycling is another story. In my community, the trash contractor rebates the money it makes from recycling to us.

For that matter, aluminum is very expensive to extract from ore. Recycling only takes about 5% of the resources.

Recycling is not going to make anybody rich, and it is not a one step answer to saving the environment. But it is a good and necessary step.
posted by ilsa at 1:39 PM on February 16, 2005


Even if recycling isn't cost-effective, doesn't it promote a healthier mentality than the "disposable" mentality that our society has adopted? Since when is being resposible for your own waste a bad thing?

From the article:
The Tragedy of the Dump is a simple problem better resolved with... private responsibility. Your trash is already your private property. You should be responsible for getting rid of it. You should have to pay to get rid of it- and you should pay whatever price it takes to insure that your garbage doesn't cause environmental problems for anyone else....

Once people switch to this pay-as-you-throw system, they throw away less-typically at least 10 to 15 percent less. Some shop differently, some take their names off junk-mail lists; some recycle. Instead of following (or ignoring) arcane rules and targets set by politicians, they're personally motivated to figure out what's worth paying to discard and what's worth diverting to a recycling bin. Those who want to recycle for spiritual reasons can do so; others can recycle whatever makes economic sense to them.
Recycling is not the only way of "being responsible for your own waste." I'm not saying I agree with all of Tierney's article, but wouldn't "being responsible for your own waste" include knowing whether recycling is effective or not, rather than blindly following some "recycling good, throwing away bad" dictum?

And I don't follow your remark about a "disposable mentality". Does sorting your discards into four different groups before getting rid of them somehow entail less of a "disposable mentality" than getting rid of them as a single group?
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:34 PM on February 16, 2005


You should have to pay to get rid of it

Have you seen my real estate taxes? I am paying to get rid of it, thanks.
posted by fixedgear at 4:17 PM on February 16, 2005


You should have to pay to get rid of it- and you should pay whatever price it takes to insure that your garbage doesn't cause environmental problems for anyone else....

I agree, but not that we should pay to dispose of it. Instead, we should pay a smart person to make things that don't turn into trash so easily, or actually decompose harmlessly. We can pay the engineers by paying a higher sales price.

We pay for our easily disposed of products with our health, in the pollution caused by trucking, manufacture, energy production ect.. These are called price externalities. Health insurance is high because a lot of people have diseases caused by air pollution.

So we pay for high health care. But we save on our junky products. If we used less products, that would be good--but we consume more everyday. So the products we consume have to designed to not harm us when they become garbage. Plastics that decompose and such.
posted by recurve at 4:24 PM on February 16, 2005


Have you seen my real estate taxes? I am paying to get rid of it, thanks.

And how much you're paying to get rid of it currently depends entirely on your property value, and is entirely unrelated to how much trash you have to get rid of. So you currently have no economic incentive to reduce the amount of trash you generate.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 5:01 PM on February 16, 2005


The bit about more trees now then in 1920 is true. It makes sense when you consider the massive deforestation that occured on the east coast because of logging in the 1800s and the effects of the chestnut blight in the 1930s.
posted by Mitheral at 5:34 PM on February 16, 2005


You should have to pay to get rid of it
Paying the right price - that's the bottom line, isn't it? Electricity tariffs should include the cost of capturing all the carbon released in producing it. That would clean up the bulk of your environmental problems... and double electricity costs... not to mention increase the cost of everything that uses electricity in the manufacturing process. In turn that will make the economic viability of recycling more apparent.

it's imperative that we get as many petroleum products back into landfills as we can
Perhaps this is not too far off... Are biodegradable materials better than, say, plastic? Is it really better to replace plastic with something that will breakdown? Won't that just release more methane and other carbon into the atmosphere?
posted by missbossy at 7:59 PM on February 16, 2005


And I don't follow your remark about a "disposable mentality". Does sorting your discards into four different groups before getting rid of them somehow entail less of a "disposable mentality" than getting rid of them as a single group?
By that I mean the trend towards disposable everything. One-time use products like Swiffer, daily facial pads and the like. I realize diapers fall into this category so I'm a bit conflicted to be honest....diapers are extremely convenient. I think products like these foster an attitude towards waste-management that is unhealthy. That it's OK to throw everything away because it won't be your problem anymore.

Oh well, maybe I'm just full of crap....ignore me.
posted by LunaticFringe at 6:51 AM on February 17, 2005


No, I don't think you're full of crap, and I pretty much agree with you. However, that goes more to the "reuse" part of the equation than the "recycle" part. The way I see it, a "use once and throw in the recycling bin" item is no better for fostering a more responsible attitude than a "use once and throw in the garbage" item is.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:05 AM on February 17, 2005


It's a small point I guess, but the word "once" means something different - pretty nearly opposite - in the recycling version of that phrase.
posted by soyjoy at 9:52 AM on February 17, 2005


The state of the art thinking on recycling is Wiiliam McDonough, who recommends eliminating the entire concept of waste.

His book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking The Way We Make Things will turn you head around on the issue.

When people say "throw it away", just where is "away" anyway? I hope wherever away is, it doesn't drain back into your water supply.
posted by scottr at 10:30 AM on February 17, 2005


Reading this article, especially with the rather strange use of "Pilgrim's Progress" as metaphor, made me think of John Delillo's novel "Underworld,' which has as one of its themes divine grace versus human garbage.
posted by blue shadows at 12:37 AM on February 19, 2005


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