RECYCLERS HAVE THEIR LATEST media attack to protest. A recent edition of Penn and Teller's cable TV show “Bullshit!,” claimed that recycling is the “ultimate ‘feel-good’ activity.” Alas they said, recycling is garbage, creates pollution, is subsidized by the government and is completely unnecessary. Wow! The truth revealed. The conspiracy unmasked. We can all breathe easier now.
Penn and Teller are magicians and professional debunkers. They claim to be pit bulls for the truth who use science and facts to expose fuzzy thinkers. Some of their targets are easy hits such as alien abduction and Ouija boards. This year, they are attacking more serious topics, such as recycling and the Bible. I was invited to appear on their show.
When I talked with the “Bullshit!” staff prior to being taped, the staff assured me that their investigation was straightforward. Yet when I mentioned a fact taken out of context by the author of a famous anti-recycling piece, they were genuinely surprised. They thought he was completely accurate. After all, he was a debunker.
Then came the taping. After a few preliminary questions, the interviewer (not the magicians themselves) started asking if NSWMA had conspired to create a landfill crisis. The allegation dates back more than a decade and is absurd. After saying no to six or seven versions of the question, I said in exasperation that anyone who believes in that conspiracy theory also believes in alien abductions.
As it turned out, they believe that America has enough landfill space for “thousands of years” (which makes me wonder what else their crystal ball tells them about life a thousand years from now).
Other questions came and went. My key point was that recycling adds to the cost of solid waste management, especially in the beginning years of a program, but that it has environmental and energy benefits that clearly outweigh the drawbacks.
When the taping was over, I signed a form allowing them to use the clips in any way they wanted. They could even make me look like an idiot if they desired. How's that for a fair-minded, scientific approach?
The promo for the show said they had tracked down the faceless bureaucrat who's responsible for recycling. That of course, was Win Porter, the Environmental Protection Agency's assistant administrator for solid waste in the late '80s. Porter spent most of his time at the EPA fending off Congressional complaints over the Superfund program. But he also restarted EPA's recycling program, which had died in the early '80s. However, to say he invented recycling is like saying that JFK invented America.
Penn and Teller used their magic skills to make the facts that didn't fit their beliefs go away. They remind me of the Congressman who once said, “don't confuse me with the facts, my mind is made up.”
Garbage and recycling can make otherwise rational people do silly things. Some people see grand moral issues in our garbage. They see recycling as the last great hope to save the world. Other people say, “what, me worry?” and want to throw everything away because we don't need to worry about tomorrow. The truth lies somewhere in between. Alas that's not “Bullshit!” and it makes for lousy debunking and boring TV.
The columnist is state programs director for the National Solid Wastes Management Association, Washington, D.C.
Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at: [email protected]