Turn Down the Volume

“The problem is that recycling is far from perfect. … Advocates magnify the strengths and ignore the weaknesses; their opponents do the opposite.”

Have you ever noticed how much recycling supporters and opponents sound like each other when they argue about recycling?

Both sides are fueled by an intense moral fervor. Each camp insists that scientific evidence is on their side and uses numerous facts and footnotes to make their case. Also, neither gives a quarter to the enemy.

During the past five years, the national and local press have covered many news stories and opinion columns questioning America's passion for recycling. Usually, they attack it as a waste of time, money and an assault on the environment.

Recycling advocates respond vociferously, arguing that “true costs” favor recycling and note the public's unyielding support for curbside programs and bottle bills. In the ensuing free-fire zone, objectivity is the biggest victim.

Moral fervor? Some recycling opponents believe it is immoral for the government to coerce anyone to do anything against their free will, including requiring people to separate recyclables from their garbage. Yet I wonder if they object as forcefully to being told to put their garbage in containers at the curbside? Recycling advocates believe recycling is a moral imperative that will help prevent an environmental apocalypse. However, they are unable to show exactly how a curbside recycling program will prevent the end of the world.

Facts and footnotes? Unfortunately, their facts often are out of context, over dramatized or inaccurate. And footnotes often cite irrelevant studies.

I can remember one environmental group's defense of recycling was to charge that our future would be irredeemably ruined by landfilling and then whipped out a list of “documented pollutants” found in garbage. I was so mortified by the list that I decided to wear a moon suit while taking my garbage to the curbside. You just can't be too safe when you're around all those toxins.

Yet those who attack recycling are equally capable of flamboyant environmental analysis. I recall one group alleging that recycling 100 tons of newspaper generates 40 tons of “toxic” waste, therefore, it is bad. They avoided, however, making any other environmental comparisons about newspaper recycling. But look on the bright side, at least they recognized the existence of toxic waste.

The problem is that recycling is far from perfect. It has its strengths and weaknesses. Recycling advocates magnify the strengths and ignore the weaknesses; their opponents do the opposite.

Recently, a newspaper reporter ended an interview with me by saying that an environmental group complained to him that recycling lacked fervor. If the passion was restored, they argued, recycling would be strong again. He asked me if I agreed. I said no, recycling needs less ardor and more common sense. Run it like a business, not a religion, I said, and everything will work out just fine.

So let's tone down the noise level. Both sides need to quit throwing rhetorical firebombs, swear off their fervor and concentrate on calm, dispassionate reason. Then we can find solutions instead of raising the volume.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at: cmiller@envasns.org.