Recycling's War of Words

April 1, 2000

10 Min Read
Recycling's War of Words

Kivi Leroux

One of the latest punches in recycling's war of words was thrown on Nov. 5, 1999 - this time by conservative commentator Betsy Hart. In a column, "Recycling is a Waste," Hart claimed that Americans have been sold a bill of goods about recycling's benefits.

"If people really are determined to feel guilty about waste, they'd be better off feeling guilty about the waste involved in their recycling," Hart wrote. The column was posted on several recycling email lists, and within hours, recycling advocates responded to Hart's column and questioned why newspaper editors love articles that bash recycling.

Bad press seems to hit the recycling community in waves. In 1992, Reader's Digest, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today published anti-recycling articles, rippling through a recycling community energized by new recycling laws in many states. But the tsunami didn't hit until four years later, when John Tierney declared that "Recycling is Garbage" in the June 30, 1996, New York Times Magazine. Tierney wrote recycling was America's most wasteful activity. It squanders money and good will without doing much for the environment, he said.

The recycling community responded in force to Tierney's article, generating more letters to the editor than any other story in the magazine to date. But no number of letters to the editor could match the effects of a glossy 11-page spread. Within a few weeks other columnists carried Tierney's message in their own newspaper columns around the United States. Today, nearly four years later, Tierney's article still is quoted by writers, including Betsy Hart.

Bad Press Makes Good Reading Why pick on recycling? The simple answer is that it makes good headlines.

"It is a standard ploy in the media to take a 'mom and apple pie' issue and be critical of it or spin it another way," says Richard Denison, senior scientist with Environmental Defense, Washington D.C. Attacking recycling makes good newspaper copy because it is so contrarian, says Denison, who has written several research papers responding to the press' criticism of recycling.

Denison also believes that the timing of negative articles about recycling is somewhat predictable. "Usually, a report has come out or there are some other circumstances that generate a flurry of articles," he says.

In December and January 1999, for example, critical articles appeared in several California newspapers. The Christian Science Monitor and the Washington Post reported how California would not meet its 50 percent landfill diversion goal. With more deadlines for state goals approaching in the next two years, recyclers should expect more bad press if those goals aren't met, Denison says.

The Anti-Recyclers? Tierney's article quoted, among others, J. Winston Porter of the Waste Policy Center, Leesburg, Va.; James DeLong of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Washington, D.C.; A. Clark Wiseman of Gonzaga University, Spokane, Wash.; and Jerry Taylor of the Cato Institute, Washington, D.C. Articles critical of recycling often quote these same sources and a handful of other free-market economists and conservative think-tank researchers.

As a group, the researchers generally oppose government intervention in the marketplace, condemning recycling programs that don't pay for themselves. While they rarely object to recycling per se, they would limit the scope of recycling programs to those materials with robust markets and those that can immediately harm the environment if disposed of improperly (e.g., used motor oil and car batteries).

Recycling advocates have dubbed the often-quoted critics the "anti-recyclers" for criticizing curbside programs that go beyond these parameters. The critics reject the label.

"I'm not an anti-recycler, I'm anti-socialized-recycling," says A. Clark Wiseman, an economics professor.

But the labeling goes both ways. Recycling critics call recycling advocates irrational and alarmist, and accuse them of using religious fervor to convince Americans to recycle at any cost. Recycling advocates say the critics are anti-government zealots and mouthpieces for industries that profit from pollution. They believe recycling produces environmental, economic and social benefits that the critics fail to properly account for and that government agencies should support.

Both sides acknowledge the stereotypes and generalizations don't improve the situation - even if they produce bite-sized arguments that make it into the newspapers.

The Philosophical Divide Given the political and philosophical differences between recycling's critics and supporters, it is not surprising that their arguments frequently center on recycling program costs, the adequacy of landfill regulations and how much government agencies should encourage Americans to recycle.

"In general, government-run, government-sponsored or government-subsidized recycling programs tend to use more resources than they save, and they are more costly than other disposal options," Wiseman says. Resources, he says, include financial capital as well as land, labor and natural resources.

Wiseman believes an argument for subsidized recycling could be made if, as many recycling advocates believe, private markets were not providing the right incentives. Yet he doesn't think that the effects of under-priced virgin materials and disposal costs - the two problems most often cited by recycling advocates - are significant enough to warrant government-sponsored recycling.

"From what I have seen," Wiseman says, "the private market comes much closer to getting an optimum level of recycling. These government programs are gigantic overkill."

The claim that recycling isn't economical bothers recycling advocate Brenda Platt, director of materials recovery for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Washington D.C. Having extensively documented recycling's costs, Platt says, "it is not so black and white. Recycling is not always more expensive, and the notion that recycling must pay for itself - when trash collection doesn't - makes no sense. There are many cost-effective programs out there."

Advocates say critics emphasize recycling's costs to make their anti-government philosophy more palatable to consumers. "There's this notion that recycling is a major imposition on the public, an imposition of big brother, " Denison says. "Yet support for recycling is very high, and that's what led governments to develop programs, not the other way around."

Landfills - Love 'Em or Leave 'Em Critics say advocates use both the shortage of landfill space and the environmental damage caused by landfills to scare people to recycle. ILSR's Platt agrees with recycling critics on one point: landfill capacity no longer is a national concern.

"The landfill crisis is not about capacity, it is about the environmental and community impacts of landfills," Platt says. She believes defending and promoting landfilling is just another way to attack recycling.

Wiseman, who often is quoted for calculating that it would take 1,000 years for all of the nation's solid waste to fill an area 35 miles square and 100 yards deep, concedes that there is scientific disagreement about landfill safety, such as questions about the toxicity of landfill leachate over time. He believes modern landfills are as sound as they can get, so the dangers of landfilling are not a valid argument for more recycling.

Don Cell, an environmental economics professor at Cornell College, Mount Vernon, Iowa, who has advocated that rural communities host landfills as a form of economic and community development, also disagrees with Platt. Americans recycle because of misguided fears about landfill safety, says Cell, who helped start a recycling program in his community. "Some people believe landfills are intrinsically bad. But there is a huge difference between modern landfills compared to landfills of old."

Despite modern landfill regulation, Platt says landfill tip fees do not reflect the true costs to communities that host landfills. "If there's no pollution [from the landfill] within 30 years, they [landfill operators] are off the hook." This leaves the community to wrestle with problems that may arise later, Cell says, but landfilling produces few long-term benefits. Recycling, he adds, helps clean the environment, reduces greenhouse gases and industrial pollution, and builds local small businesses.

Setting the Limits Critics are dismayed by what they believe is too much focus on high recycling rates. They believe recycling advocates are so focused on saving natural resources that they leave behind any rational evaluation of whether high recycling rates really save resources.

Recycling goals around 50 percent are unattainable for most states and local governments, says J. Winston Porter of the Waste Policy Center. This means that governments spend too much money and time on recycling materials that don't make sense, he says. Porter cites California's emphasis on organics recycling as an example of how governments spend money to increase their recycling rates, regardless of whether the commodity is valuable or a waste stream hazard. Cell agrees that recycling to save natural resources is misguided.

"There is a much more efficient and direct way to get those environmental benefits: regulate them directly," he says. "If you are concerned about saving forests, protect forests directly. Don't force recycling."

Denison and Platt acknowledge recycling is not a silver bullet. "We can't recycle absolutely everything, but the notion that we are anywhere near the limit today, let alone what could be recycled tomorrow with better product design, is myopic," Denison says. "[Critics] basically highlight the constraints, and instead of saying how can we overcome them, they use them as excuses to do nothing."

Americans still dispose of more than 70 percent of their solid waste in landfills and incinerators, leaving plenty of room for additional recycling, advocates say. They believe protecting natural resources such as forests can and should be approached from many angles - including direct regulation, as Cell suggests. Recycling can prevent using additional natural resources, they say.

"It's not an either/or situation," Platt says.

Any News is Good News Overall, Denison does not believe bad press about recycling makes a difference. "It doesn't affect the fundamental acceptability of recycling; it's more about media games," he says.

But Platt sees a silver lining because when the press prints anti-recycling articles, it allows recycling advocates to respond with letters to the editor and op-eds that otherwise might not be published. Nevertheless, she recommends recyclers not wait for negative press to appear before trying to get recycling's benefits covered. Recyclers can make newsworthy connections between recycling and other headline grabbers such as the economy, global warming and local community development efforts, she says.

And despite his misgivings about government recycling programs, Wiseman acknowledges that many programs are here to stay. Thus, it is extremely important that recycling coordinators run an efficient program, he says.

"Given that we are doing it, [coordinators] have very important jobs, and it's important that they operate programs as effectively as possible," he says.

Advocates agree that efficient programs only will help their cause. Several organizations, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, D.C., and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance have published case studies and other documentation of cost-efficient practices.

The National Recycling Coalition, Alexandria, Va., is developing a "Recycling Works" program to help recycling coordinators apply best practices to their collection programs, as well as provide information on the environmental and economic benefits of recycling.

Pay-as-you-throw programs, for example, receive much support. Lynn Scarlett of the Reason Foundation, Los Angeles, who spearheaded much of the criticism of curbside recycling in the early '90s, now is a leading advocate of unit-based pricing programs. Pay-as-you-throw uses the marketplace to nudge consumers in the right direction, and at least that's something everyone can agree on.

The websites of the following organizations provide information that can be used to respond to attacks on recycling in the press:

Californians Against Waste

Environmental Defense Fund

Institute for Local Self-Reliance

Natural Resources Defense Council

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

The headlines from anti-recycling articles in the mainstream press say it all:

* "Recycling Comforts the Soul, But the Benefits Are Scant," by Jeff Bailey, the Wall Street Journal, Jan. 19, 1995.

* "What a Waste: Recycling is Garbage" by John Tierney, New York Times Magazine, June 30, 1996.

* "Recycling is Absolute Hogwash" by Thomas Sowell, syndicated columnist, July 8, 1996.

* "Recycling Hasn't Lived Up to the Hype," by Craig Timberg, Baltimore Sun, May 25, 1998.

* "Waste of Time: Recycling is a Bunch of Garbage" by Marianne Moody Jennings, Arizona Republic, April 4, 1999.

* "Recycling is a Waste" by Betsy Hart, syndicated columnist, Nov. 5, 1999.

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