Garbage Woo-Woo

IN LATE APRIL, THE TWO U.S. SENATORS FROM MICHIGAN SENT a letter to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asking if shipments of Toronto's trash could be “a vehicle for the transmission of SARS.” They could have saved themselves the trouble by reading the daily newspaper. An epidemiologist on the faculty of the University of Michigan's School of Public Health already had told The Detroit News, “the garbage is the last place that we're going to be finding the virus.”

Actually, the two politicians had a better chance of injuring themselves by falling out of bed than of catching the SARS virus from Toronto's garbage or even from visiting Toronto. But the senators' reactions were no shock to those of us involved with the garbage and recycling industries. There's something about trash that makes normally intelligent people lose their common sense and say the weirdest stuff.

Politicians in particular are often the most irrational when it comes to garbage. Some of them see trash as the perfect issue with which to convince their constituents that they are vigilantly protecting them.

I was not surprised to learn that a Canadian artist had photographed her garbage one week for five years as part of an art project. Artists never surprise me, but I was surprised to learn she received government money for her project.

However, even my immunity to surprise was inadequate when I saw a conspiracy theory recently published in an academic journal. Three sociology professors wrote a paper arguing that the “emergence” of for-profit recycling was the result of an “unholy alliance” between the National Recycling Coalition and the National Solid Wastes Management Association and its members. The plot involved deinstitutionalizing the then-existent resource recovery “frame,” which emphasized burning garbage, and replaced it with recycling. Wow! Now that's a conspiracy worthy of the “X-Files.”

According to the professors, national solid waste companies saw recycling as a natural extension of their vertically integrated strategy. These businesses weren't interested in resource recovery systems because they “did not have the technical expertise to get into the [waste-to-energy] business.” So the plot was hatched.

Now, I won't be the one to tell the profs that national solid waste businesses owned several waste-to-energy companies in the '80s and some still do. Nor will I tell them that many local and national waste companies had mixed feelings about recycling. They saw it as a service their customers wanted. Yet, along with local governments, they were nervous about how to guarantee financially sustainable recycling programs, especially because recycling revenues were not easily predictable.

I'm also a little miffed. How did I miss this conspiracy? During the mid '80s and early '90s, I was an NRC board member and even chairman for one year. In the early '90s, I went to work for NSWMA. Yet, I completely missed the plot! How clueless could I be?

Actually, my teenage son would say “a lot.” But when it comes to garbage, I'm always ready for otherwise sensible people to go woo-woo and lose their cool.

The columnist is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, 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].