What a Waste

WHAT A WASTE” WAS PLASTERED on the cover of the Sunday newspaper magazine, superimposed over pictures of newspapers, steel cans, and glass and plastic bottles. Inside, the cover story, “Recycling Is Garbage,” confidently proclaimed that “rinsing out tuna cans and tying up newspapers may make you feel virtuous, but recycling could be America's most wasteful activity.”

Recyclers were stunned. This wasn't the Wall Street Journal attacking recycling; it was the New York Times, America's most reliably knee-jerk, liberal newspaper. The story set a record for letters to the editor, most of them irate. Anti-recyclers rejoiced. The greenest, most politically correct sacred cow in America was being ruthlessly gored. Surely, mandatory recycling would wither away, exposed for its foolishness.

Nine years later, recycling is more firmly entrenched than ever. The recycling rate continues to rise, and more kinds of materials are being collected at the curbside. Why didn't the story have an impact? Well, it did. Recyclers were forced to get off their duffs and come up with cogent arguments in favor of recycling. For far too long, they had slept at the wheel, propelled by recycling's popularity.

Moreover, the Times article was its own worst enemy. It was an over-the-top mélange of attitude and facts that were sometimes accurate and sometimes out of context. At times, the author seemed willing to use a “fact” if it was anti-recycling, without bothering to check if it was valid.

At the heart of the case against recycling was economics: Curbside recycling cost New York City big bucks. To bolster his case, the article's author cited the cost of collecting recyclables in 1996, but, oddly, didn't look at the cost of disposing of garbage. In fact, he only mentioned New York City's existing landfill, Fresh Kills, to say that it was closing. He didn't mention the fact that Fresh Kills was an unpermitted dump in a wetlands. Nor did he admit that New York City was paying well below market costs at its dump. While the author gave a good description of an operating Subtitle D landfill in Virginia, he didn't talk about the increased cost of using a facility that met EPA regulations and of shipping trash to that facility.

The Times writer also confused startup costs with normal operating costs. Undoubtedly, he would have predicted in the mid-1980s that personal computers would be a flop because they were too expensive. And in an economic analysis that would have put an Enron accountant to shame, he created an additional recycling cost based on estimates of the time and space needed to prepare and store recyclables.

Four years ago, when New York City announced it was suspending curbside recycling of glass and plastic, our journalist probably felt vindicated. Recycling was too expensive and he was right all along. Or was he? New York City kept collecting paper at the curbside because it was clearly cost-effective. After getting better prices from markets, the city reintroduced multi-material curbside recycling. The final insult probably came last February when New York City's Independent Budget Office noted that the increase in the cost of waste disposal, coupled with higher recycling levels, could make recycling into “the cheaper alternative, creating a strong incentive to promote recycling as a way to hold down the total cost of waste management.”

Advantage: Recycling.

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

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