When I was at WSHU last week, Geri handed me a copy of the latest Sunday
Magazine from the New York Times. She thought I would find the cover story
interesting. I did indeed. And it was a good thing Geri gave it to me, too.
All week people were asking, "Did you see 'that article?'" Titled "Recycling
is Garbage," the article reminded me of the kind of self-serving, pieces
printed by the Chemical Manufacturers Association in the propaganda magazine it
sends to teachers, free. But, in the New York Times? Actually, we weren't so
surprised. It reinforced the reason Suzanne and I stopped buying New York's
newspaper of record years ago.
Written by John Tierney, a staff writer, "Recycling is Garbage" presents the
narrow-minded perspective of an economist firmly rooted in the linear/mechanical
The article's basic message is that a lot of money is wasted with mandatory
recycling programs. We should recycle only those things which seem economically
beneficial, (aluminum cans, cardboard and office paper, currently) and bury the
rest in large landfills out in the country where few people live.
Omission is a big problem here, as it is with most economic analyses. A lot has
been left out. The landfill or recycling bin is just the last step in a whole
system, a system which grinds up 2,000 year old trees to make paper that will be
useful for perhaps just a few minutes, a system that creates radioactive wastes
that will be dangerous for 100,000 years in order to cool a room several
degrees. This system values people as consumers almost exclusively.
The polystyrene foam cup provides an excellent example of the problems. Tierney
quotes a university chemist who says that unless a ceramic mug is used 1,000
times, it consumes more energy per use than a foam cup does. This kind of
calculation usually makes some unreal assumptions and leaves out important
details. Did the chemist include the energy costs of delivering the cups to the
restaurant or home, and the energy to haul the used cups to a distant landfill?
Has the energy consumed to defend the Persian Gulf so that oil companies can
cheaply buy raw materials to make the thousand cups been included in this
analysis? Since defending the Gulf often costs us much more than the oil
itself, that must take a lot of energy.
The wastes created in the manufacturing of an item often dwarf the waste created
when we throw it away. Enormous quantities of pollution are generated by the oil
wells, chemical factories, distribution facilities and transportation systems
which are required before we can throw that small cup away.
There are also other considerations which are harder to quantify. In places
like Louisiana, Texas and New Jersey, where big chemical factories turn oil and
gas into foam cups and other plastic products, people tend to get cancer at
higher rates and the air pollution is horrible. Ask veterans with Gulf War
Syndrome or chemical workers with liver cancer if cheap plastic cups are worth
getting sick for. And, I do know that the making and the using of a mug made
from clay can provide much esthetic pleasure.
Throughout the article, Tierney nastily denigrates what children are learning
and what teachers are teaching about recycling. Then, he quotes representatives
of the Cato Institute and the Reason Foundation to reinforce his point of view.
Both of these organizations are funded by approximately the same assortment of
global agricultural, oil, packaging, beer, soda and chemical companies, all of
whom have a very strong financial interest in protecting and expanding our
current high-energy-use, throw-away society. The Times article's prominent
placement may be the result of their work. It seems amazing, (but apparently it
isn't unusual), that a newspaper allows itself to be used as a tool of
propaganda. It makes the increasingly concentrated control of the media and the
widespread lack of first-hand knowledge very frightening.
The writer would have us believe that foam cups and large landfills, without
considering, much less mentioning, the cancer and pollution associated with
them, are worthwhile human creations, and that picking up litter is a valuable
job but that making compost isn't.
The freshly picked garlic, potatoes and onions that we ate for dinner last
night, grown in composted leaves and food wastes, tell me that Tierney doesn't
know what he's talking about.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
C1996, Bill Duesing, Solar Farm Education, Box 153, Stevenson, CT 06491