Recycling and the New York Times

by David Morris

July 30, 1996

“Recycling may be the most wasteful activity in modern America…” Thus wrote John Tierney, a staff writer for the New York Times in a recent Sunday magazine cover story. The article generated more mail than any piece the magazine has ever published and spawned a slew of Op Ed pieces by conservatives crowing about how the liberal Times finally had accepted their view of the world.

What makes the Times article and a similar front page story in the Wall Street Journal a year ago so interesting is that they are not attacking government but rather the American people. Recycling is not federally funded nor federally mandated. Indeed until very recently the federal government far preferred building super landfills and large incinerators to recycling. Recycling is a bottoms up, grassroots, largely voluntary and hugely popular phenomenon.

Tierney is calling Americans stupid for recycling. But are we? As Tierney himself concedes, recycling takes about a minute a day per household, saves the nation significant amounts of energy, reduces pollution and makes us feel good about ourselves. If this is a wasteful activity I can’t wait to find out how Tierney would describe America’s favorite endeavor–sitting before a t.v. set for 5 hours a day.

The Times and the Wall Street Journal insist that recycling is uneconomical, yet study after study after study have concluded that recycling saves money. Recycling costs less than traditional garbage collection and disposal when cities achieve high levels of recycling, according to studies by the Environmental Defense Fund, Ecodata Inc., my own organization, the Washington, D.C. based Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and many others.

It is true that in some cities recycling is expensive. But often that is because these cities are still recycling at very low rates and are treating recycling as an add-on to their traditional garbage system rather than as a replacement for it. Cities that maximize recycling save money by changing their collection schedules and redesigning their collection trucks. In the long run they shift from a more expensive and capital intensive waste management system to a cheaper and more flexible labor intensive system.

The Times’ article went beyond an attack on the economics of recycling to attacked the whole notion of frugality. To Tierney we have enough space to indefinitely throw away everything we buy and therefore we should do so. To Tierney the environmental impact of throwing away a product is the same as it is in reusing or recycling that product. My grandmother would have washed his mouth out with soap. Not only does this thesis violate common sense it also contradicts dozens of empirical studies.

Mr. Tierney tells us not to worry about throwing zillions of tons of garbage into landfills because landfills don’t poison the environment. But one out of every five Superfund toxic waste sites is a former municipal solid waste landfill.

Conservatives have been trying to make the case against recycling for several years. It’s not an easy sell because they can’t simply attack Washington and Big Government. Recycling is done at the household and the local government level. The number of municipal curbside recycling programs has increased from just two in 1970 to over 7,000 today because of citizen action. So when conservatives attack recycling they have to attack almost all of us. Their strategy is to convince us that frugality is foolish and fraudulent and even reprehensible. That’s what Mr. Tierney tried to do. Did he succeed? Two thirds of the 1,000 people who wrote to the Times vehemently disagreed with him. I have no idea what was guiding the thinking of the other third.

The case for recycling is strong. The bottom line is clear. Recycling requires a trivial amount of our time. Recycling saves money and reduces pollution. Recycling creates more jobs than landfilling or incineration. And a largely ignored but very important consideration, recycling reduces our need to dump our garbage in someone else’s backyard.

Come to think of it, recycling just might be the most productive activity in modern America.

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David Morris

David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.