New Bottom Line Volume 5.16 – Making Sense of Garbage: They Recycle Arguments, Don't They?

July 30, 1996

There’s been a flurry of attention about garbage recently, provoked by article in the Sunday NY Times (“Recycling is Garbage,” by John Tierney, June 30, 1996).

The article charges that “Rinsing out tuna cans and tying up newspaper may make you feel virtuous, but recycling could be America’s most wasteful activity.” There’s no reason to think that Tierney really believes that recycling is more wasteful than, say, mining. But he does make his case with some intensity: “Mandatory recycling programs…offer mainly short-term benefits to a few groups–politicians, public relations consultants, environmental organizations, waste handling corporations–while diverting money from genuine social and environmental problems.”

The article seems to be heavily recycled itself, its line of argument substantially based on a five year old piece in Reason magazine (“Talking Trash: There’s a Solution to America’s Garbage Problem”, by Virginia I. Postrel and Lynn Scarlett, August/September 1991), which generally provided a more cogent and substantive challenge than Tierney’s.

Tierney does raise some important questions–most fundamentally, is recycling a resource-effective and cost-effective way of dealing with environmental concerns, or is it primarily a way to make people feel good about doing something? Unfortunately, he also makes his case without quoting a single recycling proponent, while relying heavily on sources funded by the throwaway products and waste hauling industries. That balance had to come from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), which quickly prepared an extensive and detailed response to the Times’ feature.

“The growth in recycling programs reflects the common-sense instinct of Americans to conserve resources and not foul their own nests,” according to EDF’s Richard Dennison and John Ruston. “Recycling cuts pollution and conserves natural resources…conserves energy…can be cost-competitive with solid waste landfilling and incineration… [and] creates jobs and reduces costs in manufacturing sectors that are an important part of our economy.”

This column lacks the space to summarize these arguments, but we encourage you to read them for yourself. (See contact information below.)

Like so many technical and political debates, this one takes on a religious dimension (all the more so in Thomas Sowell’s newspaper column on the subject, subtly retitled “Recycling is absolute hogwash,” where Sowell seems to take deep umbrage at any suggestion of environmental concern, much less action). In fact Tierney returns throughout his article to “Pilgrim’s Progress,” perhaps not seeing the irony of that 17th century allegory’s rejection of material life on earth in favor of imagined spiritual purity.

Actually, the Reason Foundation and EDF seem to agree on several key items. “Recycling is simply another way to get rid of trash,” according to Postrel and Scarlett. “To make it work, you have to make it easy on the customer…. Efficiency, not suffering, not a war on consumption, is the name of the game.” Reason and Tierney favor “pay as you throw” waste collection fees, throw away 10-15% less. EDF would agree on both counts. But as EDF notes, such market incentives to reduce waste only work if the alternatives are there. Recycling, at the level of consumer choice, is one. But it’s only a viable one if products are increasingly recyclable, and if there are markets for recycled materials.

Where they seem to disagree is whether recycling is a significant other way–what it costs, and what other benefits it offers–and whether resource consumption itself should be encouraged or moderated.

EDF, surprisingly, seems to have a better grasp of a credible business perspective, disputing Tierney’s “curious and completely unsupported assertion: [that] ‘… there are much more direct — and cheaper — ways to reduce pollution’.” Given the fact that the major environmental impacts of producing and using materials and products product occur ‘upstream’ in acquiring raw materials and in manufacturing, what could be more direct than substituting recovered materials for virgin materials, thereby avoiding the need to extract raw materials and intensively processing them? And in most cases manufacturers are finding that recovered materials also provide a less expensive means to meet their need for materials.”

In a way, Tierney and Reason aren’t so much supporting rational markets over irrational environmentalists, as favoring some businesses over others–exactly the charge they level at the enviros.

So what should a businessperson make of it all? Skip the noise and go to the fundamentals. Rising population and standard of living mean continued pressure on resources. Resource extraction processes have inevitably major environmental impacts. Single-use throwaways means more extraction. So is recycling the answer? Well, it’s part of the answer, an answer which has to also include designing more durable products, produced more efficiently from ever smaller amounts of more benign materials, that, yes, can be conveniently recycled into the next generation of still better products.

[Reason magazine back issues are available from the Reason Foundation, 3415 S. Sepulveda Blvd, Suite 400, Los Angeles, CA 90034, +1-310-391-2245, email [email protected]. The EDF response is available on the World Wide Web at, or from the EDF Public Information Dept., +1-202-387-3500, email [email protected].

(c) 1996 Gil Friend. All rights reserved.

New Bottom Line is published periodically by Natural Logic, offering decision support software and strategic consulting that help companies and communities prosper by embedding the laws of nature at the heart of enterprise.

Gil Friend, systems ecologist and business strategist, is President and CEO of Natural Logic, Inc.

May be posted intact–including this notice–in any non-commercial forum.
Please inquire at “reprint_rights at natlogic dot com” before reproduction in any commercial forum.