news & announcements

Debunking the New York Times: Recycling Isn’t Garbage

October 8, 2015

TCE Blog
Corey Troiani, DFW Program Coordinator

If you read the New York Times, you may have seen an Op-Ed by John Tierney last week trying to persuade you that recycling is actually a bad thing. He’s been railing against recycling since the mid-90’s, and now he’s been published again, coming to a predictable conclusion:

“Cities have been burying garbage for thousands of years, and it’s still the easiest and cheapest solution for trash.”

Don’t buy it. Recycling certainly isn’t a perfect silver bullet that will solve all of our waste problems, but burning or burying our trash is far worse for the environment and the economy. We need to prevent and reduce waste right from the start, reuse everything we can after that, and yes, recycle the rest.

If you get that, no need to keep reading—but if this bad Op-Ed has you wondering, allow us to dismantle it. Let’s get started.

It’s still typically more expensive for municipalities to recycle household waste than to send it to a landfill.

Here’s the first major misleading claim, one that’s at the center of our current waste system and is often used in similar arguments elsewhere: It’s cheaper not to protect the environment.

What’s really going on here, of course, is that it only appears cheaper—we aren’t even seeing, let alone paying, the true costs of landfills. In the business world, this is called an externality because it means externalizing what should be an internal cost. And polluting industries are really, really good at doing just that. The company gets the profit, the public gets the cost. (“Cheap” fossil fuels are another perfect example of this.) Landfills often have long-term costs that are borne by we the taxpayers.

Prices for recyclable materials have plummeted because of lower oil prices and reduced demand for them overseas.

Indeed, prices for commodities go up and down over time like the stock market. Every time those prices go down, you can count on someone to claim that recycling is not viable as a result. Yet somehow, prices go back up again when manufacturers realize they can save money using recycled materials.

While politicians set higher and higher goals, the national rate of recycling has stagnated in recent years…. [it] has been stuck around 34 percent.

This is a real problem. But it’s because manufacturers keep making products and packaging that can’t be easily recycled—disposable Styrofoam food and drink containers are nearly impossible to recover and recycle, for example, yet they are everywhere—and because of the false economics that keep landfill costs artificially low. Some producers, such as the inventor of Keurig and its infinite, unrecyclable K-Cups, actually live to regret it.

Yes, it’s popular in affluent neighborhoods like Park Slope in Brooklyn and in cities like San Francisco, but residents of the Bronx and Houston don’t have the same fervor for sorting garbage in their spare time.

Here we come to our first outright lie. Americans of all stripes want to recycle. We know it works. Despite the lack of effort by state officials to promote or support it, recycling has spread from El Paso to Texarkana and many cities in between just since the last time the author wrote a hate-piece against it. In fact, more people say they recycle regularly than vote!

“If you believe recycling is good for the planet and that we need to do more of it, then there’s a crisis to confront,” says David P. Steiner, the chief executive officer of Waste Management, the largest recycler of household trash in the United States. “Trying to turn garbage into gold costs a lot more than expected. We need to ask ourselves: What is the goal here?”

Another major, unmissable clue: Waste Management is one of the largest landfill companies in the world. Yes, they recycle materials as well, but they make far more money by continuing to build trash mountains, AKA landfills. We do need to ask ourselves what the goal is—to make landfill companies more profitable?

But how much difference does it make? Here’s some perspective: To offset the greenhouse impact of one passenger’s round-trip flight between New York and London, you’d have to recycle roughly 40,000 plastic bottles.

The author is comparing one of the worst materials to recycle—single-use plastic bottles, which arguably should not even be made or used in the first place—to one of the most carbon-intensive things you can do. Disposable plastic drink containers will lose every argument they’re in, because they’re an unsustainable product in general. But that doesn’t mean we should just burn or bury them instead of recycling!

One of the original goals of the recycling movement was to avert a supposed crisis because there was no room left in the nation’s landfills.

Actually, we now have the opposite problem: Texas has more than enough landfill capacity. Too much landfill space can lead to hyper-competitive markets pressuring landfill companies to cut corners to keep their rates low. That helps keep the “landfills are cheap” myth going.

Landfills are typically covered with grass and converted to parkland… The United States Open tennis tournament is played on the site of an old landfill — and one that never had the linings and other environmental safeguards required today.

This one’s a doozy. In older times, our trash was organic in nature—there were no plastics or synthetic materials—so old landfills have indeed been reclaimed. But garbage today is full of synthetics, toxic chemicals and heavy metals, which is why new safeguards are now required. That also means modern landfills are essentially hazardous waste sites. No, our kids aren’t playing there.

Though most cities shun landfills, they have been welcomed in rural communities that reap large economic benefits (and have plenty of greenery to buffer residents from the sights and smells).

Here’s another blatant lie. Landfills are increasingly foisted on rural areas because there are far fewer people around to object. Landfill companies reap the economic benefits, while surrounding communities loses money due to declining property values. That’s because most big waste companies are terrible neighbors. Some prove to be exceptions, but they are just that—exceptions.

For example, the Hempstead community (near Houston) is close to defeating a proposed landfill that threatened their water supply. The fight unified the community as they raised $1.7 million to defeat it, sued their former County officials for cutting secret deals with the landfill company and defeated elected officials at the ballot box who refused to protect their health from the proposed dump.

A modern well-lined landfill in a rural area can have relatively little environmental impact. Decomposing garbage releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas, but landfill operators have started capturing it and using it to generate electricity. Modern incinerators, while politically unpopular in the United States, release so few pollutants that they’ve been widely accepted in the eco-conscious countries of Northern Europe and Japan for generating clean energy.

Texas landfill leakers graphic for report

This is like some kind of competition to see how many falsehoods can fit into one paragraph. All landfills have big environmental impacts—the EPA says that eventually, they all leak toxic wastewater (called “leachate”) into the ground, which means possibly into groundwater. According to the state environmental agency, 36 of 100 Texas landfills with groundwater monitoring wells were leaking in 2013.

Even landfills that attempt to capture methane still release far too much of it—for instance, the McCommas Bluff landfill is the 6th largest stationary source of hazardous air pollution in Dallas, even though it has a gas capture system in place. Living near a landfill is like living near any other polluting, industrial facility: It makes people sick.

Then there’s the worst lie so far: Incinerators are fine and dandy. We could spend the entire article debunking that. Burning trash is absolutely terrible for the environment, the economy, and the climate. Just because other countries do it doesn’t means it’s a good idea. For much more about this absurd, destructive practice, read on here.

Composting facilities around the country have inspired complaints about nauseating odors, swarming rats and defecating sea gulls…. the unhappy neighbors of the composting plant successfully campaigned to shut it down last year.

Yes, if run badly, composting facilities can be bad neighbors too. Even bad-apple recycling facilities can do great harm. There was a lead-acid battery recycling plant in Frisco, TX that dumped so much lead into the air and water that it turned the town into a national “toxic hotspot.” We helped local residents win their fight to shut it down. Does that mean we shouldn’t recycle car batteries? Of course not—it means we should do it correctly.

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.

Unreal. The author glibly glosses over a massive, global problem as if it’s a minor annoyance. Have you seen where most of our raw materials actually come from? It’s a catastrophe, a true environmental disaster, that’s often kept hidden from view. Trade-offs? Jobs? Sometimes it’s more like war prisoners and child labor in the developing world.

Recycling one ton of plastic saves only slightly more than one ton of carbon dioxide. A ton of food saves a little less than a ton. For glass, you have to recycle three tons in order to get about one ton of greenhouse benefits. Worst of all is yard waste: it takes 20 tons of it to save a single ton of carbon dioxide.

As opposed to burying or burning the material instead, which brings zero climate benefits and actually produces even more greenhouse gas emissions! Worst of all is the author’s dismissal of yard waste composting: Keeping organic material out of landfills prevents methane pollution, which is 20 times better at trapping heat than carbon dioxide is.

Once you exclude paper products and metals, the total annual savings in the United States from recycling everything else in municipal trash — plastics, glass, food, yard trimmings, textiles, rubber, leather — is only two-tenths of 1 percent of America’s carbon footprint.

Meanwhile, back in reality: EPA estimates show that taken as a whole, the provision, transportation and disposal of products, food and packaging accounts for 42% of our overall climate footprint. Recycling is one key part of reducing that impact.

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.

The author either doesn’t understand this or doesn’t want you to. We’re simply not paying the real cost of labor or raw materials right now. Using child labor in a war-torn region of Africa to get materials that are then sent to be manufactured in glorified sweatshops in Asia that need suicide nets to keep people from jumping off the roof who make smartphones by the billions that are then shipped all over the world using heavily subsidized fossil fuels—our current take it, make it, waste it system is built on a giant compilation of externalized costs and privatized profits. Understanding where most of our stuff really comes from makes the entire article read like something out of The Onion.

Social good would be optimized by subsidizing the recycling of some metals, and by imposing a $15 tax on each ton of trash that goes to the landfill…. The result, Dr. Kinnaman predicts, would be a lot less recycling than there is today.

Here’s the first and only good idea in the article. However, a measly $15/ton is far too low. If the true costs of extraction, manufacturing, transportation and waste were really reflected in such a garbage tax, we would have much MORE recycling because that would obviously be far cheaper. Many countries, and even many U.S. states, have laws in place that make manufacturers responsible for the costs associated with recovering the waste they create, such as Texas’ computer and TV recycling laws. By all means, let’s expand and improve that system to hold even more companies accountable. But pretending those costs are miniscule will only incentivize even more waste, landfills and incinerators.

[Recycling] is less an ethical activity than a religious ritual, like the ones performed by Catholics to obtain indulgences for their sins.

Interesting word choice—today’s raw materials extraction, sweatshop manufacturing centers, landfills, and incinerators are indeed sins against nature and humanity. Recycling isn’t asking for forgiveness, it’s working to prevent future harm.

They want to make these rituals mandatory for everyone else, too, with stiff fines for sinners who don’t sort properly… It would take legions of garbage police to enforce a zero-waste society, but true believers insist that’s the future.

Yes, when you do something that harms society as a whole, society may eventually penalize you for doing it. Hardly a new concept. But no, “garbage police” aren’t the only way to Zero Waste. Education, well-designed programs, and economic incentives will all play a role. For an excellent “road map” to Zero Waste, read here.

Cities have been burying garbage for thousands of years, and it’s still the easiest and cheapest solution for trash.

And we’re finally back where we started. We should just keep burying our trash forever, ignoring the global, interconnected consequences, because it’s “easy and cheap.” We haven’t learned anything new about how to function as a species since pre-history. What a compelling argument…

When it comes to waste and recycling, remember that there are many systemic, unsustainable problems involved. Unfortunately, misinformation is everywhere—even in the New York Times.


Corey Troiani
DFW Program Coordinator, Texas Campaign for the Environment

Tags: , ,

Categories: News Clipping

See All Posts >

subscribe to get updates via email

Sign Up