Skip to Content


He’s Back...

October 6, 2015

Sunday’s New York Times posted another opinion piece by John Tierney preaching the evils of recycling. Those of us in the business for a while will remember his first attack on recycling back in 1996. And, now he’s regaling us with pretty much the same message—recycling costs money and its a waste of time.

Yes, we all know some recycling costs money; but all trash disposal costs money.

Mr. Tierney fails to discuss externalities, costs, and environmental impacts of increasing our reliance on landfills and incinerators. Nor does he address the externalities, costs, and environmental impacts of resource extraction and manufacturing with virgin resources that the use of recycled resources helps us avoid.

Instead says Tierney, “THE environmental benefits of recycling come chiefly from reducing the need to manufacture new products — less mining, drilling and logging. But that’s not so appealing to the workers in those industries and to the communities that have accepted the environmental trade-offs that come with those jobs.”

There are so many things wrong with this statement that I could write multiple blogs on it. So, I’ll just say that the fact that mining, drilling, and logging have declined in this country has far less to do with recycling, and more to do with world economics and the social and environmental impacts of these industries.

Tierney did not bother to mention ISRI’s recent study on the economic and environmental impact of the scrap industry. Their findings—“the U.S. scrap recycling industry is a major economic engine powerful enough to create 471,587 jobs and generate $11.2 billion in tax revenues for governments across the country, all while making the old new again and helping to protect the earth’s air, water, and land for future generations.”

According to ISRI, the total economic activity spawned by scrap recycling in the United States is $105.8 billion. This puts scrap recycling on par with our country’s “data processing and hosting industry, the dental industry, and the automotive repair industry.”

On reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Tierney states: “…to reduce carbon emissions, you’ll accomplish a lot more by sorting paper and aluminum cans than by worrying about yogurt containers and half-eaten slices of pizza.” Clearly Mr. Tierney hasn’t paid much attention to the studies pointing to the greenhouse gas contribution of food scraps landing up in landfills or the carbon sequestration benefits of compost.

Pointing out some of the flaws in Mr. Tierney’s “facts,” here’s what Adam Minter of Shanghai Scrap had in response to Tierney’s comment on recycling’s supposed ineffectual impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions:

“Now here’s the additional perspective that Tierney left out: in 2010, Americans consumed 42.6 billion plastic water bottles, alone, according to the Container Recycling Institute. That’s enough plastic water bottle waste to offset the greenhouse gases for 1,065,000 round-trips between London and New York in coach every year. If business or first class is desired, and you use Tierney’s methods, the numbers drop to 426,000 offsets.

And it just gets better. Bottled water sales grew 7.4% in the U.S. last year. Not only that, Americans use many, many other types of recyclable plastic bottles – including detergent bottles, by the millions (or billions?). In other words – many more hundreds of thousands of greenhouse gas offsets between London and New York!

Of course, not all of those bottles are actually collected for recycling. In the U.S., the rate is around 30%, annually (but growing). So we’re probably talking around 340,000 offsets for round-trip flights between New York and London.”

Or, as Mr. Minter points out, “Americans recycle enough plastic water bottles every year to offset the carbon emissions generated by the entire population of Anaheim, California flying round-trip between New York and London, annually.”

Tierney offers, with no facts backing his statement, “Despite decades of exhortations and mandates, it’s still typically more expensive for municipalities to recycle household waste than to send it to a landfill.” Well, Ron Gonen, former Deputy Commissioner for NYC’s Sanitation and Recycling wrote this comment on the Times website in response to Tierney’s article:

"As the former Deputy Commissioner for Sanitation and Recycling in NYC (Bloomberg administration) and as someone who now manages a Fund that invests in municipal recycling projects, I can tell you that the purported ‘facts and figures’ in the oped are completely erroneous. With industry knowledge, it reads like a oped pushed for by the owners of landfills. Quoting the CEO of Waste Management, the largest owner of landfills in the U.S. and the largest owner of transfer stations (facilities that transfer waste from cities to landfills) in the U.S. about the state of recycling without disclosing their financial interest in landfills and transfer stations misleads readers…The economics of recycling for a City are simple. Send paper, metal, glass, plastics and food waste to landfill, the City is charged a fee. In the case of NYC, over $350m of tax-payer money annually. Send the same material, to a local recycling facility or organics processor, the City avoids the landfill fee and sometimes also generates revenue.”

Susan Robinson, Director of Public Affairs for Waste Management points out in her article recently posted on the NERC Blog, Recycling...Challenges and Successes, since 2000, “per person waste generation in the U.S. is down by 8%, bottles and cans weigh 30% less, and we generate 20% less paper packaging.”  So, while national recycling rates may be stagnant, much of this reflects that industry and the American people are doing a great job at source reduction.

There are also plenty of communities around the nation that have reached recovery rates far higher than our national average—San Francisco, Portland, Minneapolis—just to name the big ones.

Yes, markets for recyclables are down. Markets go up and down…ask anyone who lost his or her shirt in the housing market collapse. How about the continued fall of oil prices? Are we abandoning our need for housing or our dependence on oil? It may make sense for some communities not to recycle some materials. But, to abandon all recycling is illogical.

If recycling is so costly, why do so many manufacturers strive for zero waste? Certainly as these manufacturers exemplify, recycling is just one part of the materials management hierarchy which must include source reduction, reuse, and recycling. No mention by Tierney of the big picture of materials management.

Producer responsibility legislation to integrate more recyclability in our products is also a point not addressed by Tierney—the fact that many of our products and the packaging in which it comes are increasingly harder to recycle.  

Argues Tierney, “As a business, recycling is on the wrong side of two long-term global economic trends. For centuries, the real cost of labor has been increasing while the real cost of raw materials has been declining. That’s why we can afford to buy so much more stuff than our ancestors could. As a labor-intensive activity, recycling is an increasingly expensive way to produce materials that are less and less valuable.”

Regardless of the fact that people in developing nations are not paid livable wages to make our consumer items, that we produce fewer durable items (increasingly made out of nonrenewable petroleum-derived materials), and that the pollution caused by manufacturing said consumer items has tremendous impacts on these countries and the planet, Mr. Tierney would have us keep consuming at higher and higher rates.

I’m not sure what’s more appalling—Tierney’s lack of regard for the impact our production and consumption has on developing nations, the environment, and the loss of resources for future generations or his advocacy for simply"burying" everything because civilizations have been doing so for "thousands of years."

I’ll keep practicing my recycling “religion” and continue offering “sermons” (based upon actual facts) because recycling is the right thing to do, makes economic and environmental sense, and is vital for the future of our planet.

By Athena Lee Bradley



Comments (0)

Add a Comment

Allowed tags: <b><i><br>Add a new comment: