Garbage Facts

EVERY DAY, I READ TWO DOZEN newspaper stories about garbage and recycling. Most of them are inconsequential articles about the daily business of solid waste management. Reporters usually get their facts straight. But I've read enough news stories over the years to maintain a healthy skepticism about the daily press.

I'm not saying that journalists can't be trusted. The problem is that most environmental stories are written by local reporters who rely on “experts” for their facts. And they don't have the time or inclination to check the “facts” for accuracy.

Over the years I've discovered a number of recurring misconceptions. These “misfacts” are good examples of our ability to create urban myths about garbage and recycling. My favorite is the claim that New York City's Fresh Kills landfill can be seen from outer space by the naked eye. Wow! More proof of an out-of-control disposal system fed by our rapacious ability to consume things and create trash.

I hate to disappoint anyone, but only Superman can see Fresh Kills from outer space. Heck, you'd be hard-pressed to see it from an airplane at 30,000 feet. At best, you might see a small brown spot adrift in the urban jungle of New York City and north Jersey.

Another commonly stated “fact” claims that electronics products become toxic trash because they are made from lead and mercury. I don't dispute that both metals can be lethal if ingested. And some electronics products fail EPA's Toxics Characteristics Leachate Procedure for lead. But that doesn't mean they are toxic in a landfill. In fact, all the data shows that these metals do not leach out of the product. Now, if a garbage truck or a landfill contained a diamond-tipped grinder and then tumbled the tiny bits of metal in an acid solution for 18 hours, we might have a problem. But they don't.

Anti-recyclers are prone to the same exaggeration. They love to make similar toxic claims in their publications. In one “exposé,” the author, an economics professor, claimed that an EPA study found more toxic chemicals at paper recycling mills than virgin pulp mills. Shades of Greenpeace I thought! We have a problem!

If you look at the data, however, you realize that the amounts of toxics are too small to create an impact on human health. He didn't put the data into context. Instead, we got a blanket, scare-the-public assertion that recycling is dangerous. Why? Because, the “fact” fit his preconceptions. If you are going to expose recycling, it's easier yelling “toxic!” than being accurate.

I could go on and on. The latest myth claims that recycling is more expensive than garbage disposal in New York City. Wait a minute — according to New York City's Independent Budget Office's calculations, paper recycling is less expensive than garbage collection and disposal; bottles and can recycling is more expensive. In fact, when New York City “discontinued” recycling, it only stopped collecting bottles and cans, and never stopped collecting paper.

Why did reporters keep leaving these facts out? Who knows, maybe they just weren't fit to print.

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]

The columnist is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.