Hotline, Winter 1997
[John Ruston of the Environmental Defense Fund spoke at GASP's annual meeting on November 18. We invited him to speak because of his work in defense of recycling, as summarized in this article.]
“Recycling is Garbage,” according to John Tierney of the New York Times. In response, John Ruston of the Environmental Defense Fund wrote that Tierney’s June 30 article (printed in the Post-Gazette on July 14) dismisses America’s recycling success story using unattributed assertions; selective anecdotes; and quotes from consultants funded by the plastics and packaging industry and think tanks who see Big Brother lurking behind every recycling bin. In the process, the article belittles the common-sense instinct of Americans who see the wisdom of conserving resources and not fouling their own nests.
John Tierney’s article was given prominence (and consequently wide distribution) by its placement as the cover story in the New York Times Magazine on Sunday, June 30. New Yorkers were soon treated to the spectacle of their mayor brandishing a copy of “Recycling is Garbage” as he defended his proposal to slash the funding of the city’s recycling programs by 40%.
For residents of rural Pennsylvania, the undermining of recycling in New York City aggravates a threat which was described on June 3 by Don Hopey of the Post-Gazette: Last week, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Governor George Pataki announced an agreement to close the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island by 2001, and promised to find ways to export the 13,000 tons of garbage that piles up in New York City each day. The ways they’re looking at most are Interstates 78 and 80, leading right into Pennsylvania.
In 1995, our state imported about 6.7 million tons of waste into Pennsylvania solid waste facilities. Even more waste from New York City would compound a growing problem. The Fresh Kills landfill currently receives about 4.7 million tons per year, and that total will increase if the city’s recycling program is undermined.
For Pittsburghers, the Tierney article appeared soon after a local scandal hit the headlines: the dumping into landfills of material collected for recycling. Our region already trails the rest of the state in the percentage of waste that we recycle. In the city and many of its suburbs, the commitment to recycling on the part of municipal officials is feeble at best. As in New York, the danger here (and elsewhere in the country) is that some of those officials will use “Recycling is Garbage” to justify cuts in recycling programs.
John Ruston, an economic analyst, and his colleague Dr. Richard Denison, a scientist at EDF, led the environmental community’s response to “Recycling is Garbage.” The quotation at the beginning of this article came from a letter they wrote on July 3 to the editor of the Times. By July 18, Denison and Ruston had published “Anti-Recycling Myths” — sixteen pages of carefully footnoted commentary on “Recycling is Garbage.”
Before examining — and debunking — ten “anti-recycling myths,” the Denison/Ruston paper asks: Who are the anti-recyclers? Here is that section of the commentary:
Recycling has always faced detractors, especially municipal curbside recycling collection programs. The early nay-sayers included solid waste officials who were resistant to change, and trash haulers and incinerator builders who resented the new competition.
At first, the argument was that citizens would not go to the trouble to sort recyclable items from their trash. We now know that well-designed and publicized curbside collection programs in typical American suburban communities routinely achieve participation rates of 80% and higher. Skeptics also said that markets for recovered materials would not absorb all the new materials being collected. But since 1985, consumption of recovered metals, glass, plastic and paper by American manufacturers has grown steadily, even as commodity prices for virgin and recycled materials naturally fluctuate.
The nine-page June 30 Times Magazine article did not contain a single quote from a representative of the recycling industry. Instead — ironic for an author who maintains that environmentalists’ enthusiasm for recycling is mere religious fervor — the article relied heavily on quotes and information supplied by a group of consultants and think tanks that have strong ideological objections to recycling.
The Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute (both based in Washington DC), the Reason Foundation (based in Santa Monica, CA) and the Waste Policy Center (based in Leesburg, VA) are policy think tanks that tend to oppose government programs of any sort. At least some of these organizations accept funding from companies involved in solid waste collection, landfilling and incineration; the manufacturing of products from virgin materials; and the production and sale of packaging and consumer products. Many of the corporations that fund the anti-recyclers have a direct economic stake in maintaining the waste management status quo and in minimizing consumers’ scrutiny of the environmental effects of products and packaging.
An underlying theme of the anti-recyclers is that government bureaucrats have imposed recycling on people against their will, conjuring up an image of Big Brother hiding behind every recycling bin. Yet public opinion polls and consumer research show that recycling enjoys overwhelming public support because people believe it is good for the environment and conserves resources. This overwhelming public support, not a government edict, is a major reason why state and local initiatives in recycling have flourished.
The full text of “Anti-Recycling Myths” is available on the Environmental Defense Fund web site.
by John Warren, GASP Board of Directors