In 1996, New York Times columnist, Libertarian, and self-described contrarian John Tierney wrote “Recycling Is Garbage” for New York Times Magazine. Tierney’s conclusions included:
- “Recycling does sometimes make sense—for some materials in some places at some times.”
- “[T]he simplest and cheapest option is usually to bury garbage in an environmentally safe landfill.”
- “[S]ince there’s no shortage of landfill space (the crisis of 1987 was a false alarm), there’s no reason to make recycling a legal or moral imperative.”
- “Recycling may be the most wasteful activity in modern America: a waste of time and money, a waste of human and natural resources.”
Tierney’s controversial article questioned the role of recycling as a compulsory public good and used adorable school children from Linnette Aponte-Hernandez’s third-grade science class at Bridges Elementary in Manhattan to make his point that even teaching about recycling was wasteful. Tierney observed Aponte-Hernandez’s class for a day, then promptly deduced that the plastic gloves and plastic bags the class had used to sort recycling from garbage were also a waste. Aponte-Hernandez, a lifelong educator and recycler, remembered Mr. Tierney’s visit, even 22 years later.
“WOW!” Aponte-Hernandez wrote, “Talk about a blast from the past! I still have a copy of that article that infuriated me after he visited our class for the day and then wrote up the article with that perspective!”
Tierney’s anti-recycling rhetoric infuriated many and reportedly prompted the largest amount of hate mail The New York Times had ever received at the time. Richard A. Denison, senior scientist, and John F. Ruston, economic analyst, both of the Environmental Defense Fund, also penned a 1997 response to Tierney’s piece titled, “Recycling Is Not Garbage,” in MIT Technology Review. In their rejoinder, Denison and Ruston go myth by myth, breaking down the problems with Tierney’s cherrypicked sources and the misplaced assumption that recycling should pay for itself. They explore the inherent environmental risks of increased dependency on landfills, including a significant increase in greenhouse gases, the dangers of leachate contaminating groundwater (even in lined, “environmentally safe” landfills), and more.
Tierney’s anti-recycling rhetoric infuriated many and reportedly prompted the largest amount of hate mail The New York Times had ever received at the time.
At the Time, Tierney’s piece sparked debate about the goals, merits, and disadvantages of public-sector recycling. Which makes sense considering residential recycling was still relatively young in the mid-1990s. In fact, not until the 1970s did recycling depositories and municipal recycling programs take flight in the United States. University City, Missouri, the St. Louis suburb where a statue of Chuck Berry holds court in the Delmar Loop shopping and night-life district, became one of the first cities in the country to offer curbside recycling in 1974. Now, the 44-year-old pioneering program is costing University City “more than it has in a long time,” according to an unnamed city official in a recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch report.
China’s double-edged sword
Oddly, Tierney’s 1996 report on the failures and false virtue of recycling seems increasingly prophetic. So far in 2018, Oregon threw 23 million pounds of recyclables into landfills and Sacramento, California limited the amount and type of plastics its curbside recycling program accepted due to China’s waste-import ban. The ban, known as China’s “National Sword” policy, had been in the works long before escalating trade tensions between the United States and China, but when the “National Sword” (later rebranded as “Blue Sky”) policy took effect on January 1, 2018, the Chinese government enacted strict purity standards for recycled plastics and 23 other solid-waste materials. Many lambast China’s tightening standards, but it is hard not to empathize with a nation whose own people have been hurt attempting to process the world’s contaminated or low-quality recyclables, often because consumers, like those in the United States, are far removed from the difficult process. Plastic China, an award-winning 2016 documentary film, put in stark perspective the human cost and suffering involved in recycling low-quality plastics for poor Chinese families.
“We cannot allow people to lose trust in recycling,” Mitch Hedlund said to Waste360, a solid waste, recycling, and organic and sustainable communities trade publication. “As an industry, we need to work together to increase recycling and reduce contamination and confusion at the bin through standardization. Everyone is making these big zero waste goals while the wheels are falling off their recycling wagon, and the only way to get the wheels back on the wagon is by getting everyone on the same page.”
As more and more cities work toward zero-waste initiatives, it is important to review what is happening to municipal recycling programs right now. The future of recycling seems less “brave, new world,” and potentially more challenging and ripe for innovation. “We cannot allow people to lose trust in recycling,” Mitch Hedlund said to Waste360, a solid waste, recycling, and organic and sustainable communities trade publication. “As an industry, we need to work together to increase recycling and reduce contamination and confusion at the bin through standardization. Everyone is making these big zero waste goals while the wheels are falling off their recycling wagon, and the only way to get the wheels back on the wagon is by getting everyone on the same page.”
Another curbside recycling program in jeopardy
The interconnected and international issue of “How do you solve a problem like recycling?” hits close to home with the reported closing of St. Louis municipality Kirkwood, Missouri’s single-stream curbside recycling program effective October 22, 2018. Kirkwood’s decision to “tentatively suspend” curbside recycling signals the economic pressures and realities many American municipalities and Material Recovery Facilities (MRF, which rhymes with Smurf) face as China and Hong Kong’s demand for low-quality recyclables exits, stage left. Kirkwood’s MRF, Resource Management, notified Kirkwood officials “effective November 1, it will no longer accept the City’s mixed recyclables.” Without a materials recovery facility to process Kirkwood’s recyclables, residents who wish to recycle will have to revisit using the city’s Francis Scheidegger Recycling Depository.
Elysia Musumeci, sustainability and outreach coordinator for Brightside St. Louis, the city’s oldest and most comprehensive not-for-profit cleaning and greening group, still has hope that Kirkwood’s program can continue. “There is a possibility that Kirkwood might have to suspend curbside recycling, but there are many things in the works to prevent that from happening,” Musumeci wrote in an August 20 email. “I don’t think they will be without curbside service.”
Nationwide, though, there is mounting pressure on municipalities such as Kirkwood and for-profit MRFs to figure out what to do with an influx of recycled products few domestic or global markets want. China’s earlier initiatives, such as “Operation Green Fence,” put the global recycling industry on notice as early as 2013, yet China’s decision to not to be the world’s last trash can is especially felt by U.S. municipalities and recyclers who once depended on China and Hong Kong to purchase 72 percent of all U.S. plastic scrap exports. The West Coast has been hit especially hard by the vanishing scrap and recycling markets in China and Southeast Asia.
Nationwide there is mounting pressure on municipalities such as Kirkwood and for-profit MRFs to figure out what to do with an influx of recycled products few domestic or global markets want.
Before the writing was on the wall with China, Tierney revisited his 1996 article in 2015 with a New York Times op-ed entitled, “The Reign of Recycling,” which news outlets, like Bustle, recycled almost in full. This time, much like what happened in the mid-1990s, Treehugger went in for the kill with Lloyd Alter’s “Idiocracy in the New York Times: John Tierney on Recycling,” as did Grist’s Ben Adler in “Is Recycling As Awful As the New York Times Claims? Not Remotely”.
The siren songs of virtue and waste
Nevertheless, others conceded Tierney had his points. Boston University marketing researchers Monic Sun and Remi Trudel used a Tierney line as an epigraph to their April 2017 article, “The Effect of Recycling Versus Trashing on Consumption: Theory and Experimental Evidence,” in the Journal of Marketing Research: “Just as third graders believed that their litter run was helping the planet, Americans have embraced recycling as a transcendental experience, an act of moral redemption.” Sun and Trudel also noted an important interpretation of their findings was the “current promotions of recycling may not emphasize the cost of recycling enough. Although modern technologies have considerably lowered the cost to recycle, the labor and equipment involved in this task are still substantial. When these costs are ignored or underestimated, the positive emotions that result from recycling would could completely override the negative emotions of wasting. As a result, people might pursue recycling even at the cost of using more resources than needed. Future promotions of recycling should, therefore, emphasize the significant cost of recycling and make a conscious effort to prioritize ‘reduce’ over ‘recycle.’”
What Monic and Trudel emphasized—publicizing the economic costs of recycling and the necessity of decreasing consumption beyond simply recycling—is something Tierney investigated in his 1996 report and 2015 editorial. However, Tierney’s conclusion that it is more economical to outsource waste disposal to rural or less populated areas and to trash less in-demand recyclables in landfills is what so many environmentalists, researchers, recycling industries, and citizens balk at. While Tierney’s subject matter raised (and still raises) the ire in many readers, his work asks us to consider the scalability, feasibility, and social and economic costs of curbside recycling programs, in addition to what we have learned to improve public recycling endeavors 20-plus years later.
To get a sense of Tierney’s modus operandi, it is important to note the two founding principles of his since retired New York Times TierneyLab Blog, which, in 2007, sought to “[put] ideas in science to the test”:
- Just because an idea appeals to a lot of people doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
- But that’s a good working theory.
While the blog predates Tierney’s 1996 condemnation of the recycling’s misplaced virtue, Tierney used the principles he would later use for his blog to make a case for why recycling does not benefit Americans as much as many of us thought it did. For good measure, Tierney stirred some readers’ latent Puritanical guilt by invoking John Bunyan’s 17th-century allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress, to make the case for why our supposed obsession with “Earthly things” (read recycling) keeps us farther from God and a sensible and cost-effective relationship with our waste. The latter-day muckraker, Tierney posited, loses sight of what is important by, well, digging through his own filth. In the end, Tierney reminded the reader, “The muckraker has forgotten that there is more to life than hoarding natural resources. His recycling has become the most primitive form of materialism: the worship of materials.”
Tierney’s conclusion is that it is more economical to outsource waste disposal to rural or less populated areas and to trash less in-demand recyclables in landfills is what so many environmentalists, researchers, recycling industries, and citizens balk at.
Recycling as a “worship of materials,” however, misses the bigger elephants in the room of overconsumption, overpackaging, and more intuitive, consistent guidelines for making recycling more effective and cost-efficient. Part of the problem with recycling is the psychology involved. We often consume more simply because we know recycling exists. The “rebound effect” is real—if people think a product or good can be recycled instead of used sparingly, consumers will buy or use more. Yet, the “rebound effect” cancels out any environmentally friendly benefit of recycling. So, the answer is not to abandon recycling, so much as use less. As in, much less.
A primary concern is recycling is not a license to waste more, as Shankar Vedantam reported for NPR in 2017, as “researchers (Monic and Trudel) say people’s guilt for wasting is overridden by the good feelings for recycling.” In other words, “reduce and reuse” come before “recycle,” as the Solid Waste Association of North America has put it in its campaign to reduce single-use plastics.
Moreover, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Inc.’s (ISRI) campaign for “A Better Bin” highlights some of the challenges inherent to single-stream recycling, which replaced the “old-fashioned” sorted recycling in many towns and cities in the early 2000s. Challenges with single-stream recycling may sometimes include:
- inconsistent or varied program guidelines for what is recyclable (what may be recyclable in one city versus a neighboring town can be different)
- recycling items that are not recyclable, such as nylon hammocks, used air conditioners, and wooden bed frames— “wishcycling” can doom other recyclables to the landfill by contaminating the whole bin with food waste, broken glass, wet or soggy recyclables that ruin recycled paper and turn it into glop
- the less sorting users do on the front-end, the more likely recyclables are contaminated, broken, and devalued, not to mention the back-end costs waste-management companies take on because at some point someone must sort the bin
Sarah Laskow of The Atlantic reported in 2014 that while single-stream recycling has made the recycling process easier for the public, there are inherent issues within the system: “One of the main criticisms of single-stream recycling is that it’s led to a decrease in quality of the materials recovered (which matters for the people who buy bales of recycled material and turn it into new products).”
And one of the big problems with the decrease in quality of materials recovered from recycling is what will residential recyclers do now that China will no longer take work-intensive, low-return recyclables? According to the Congressional Research Service (IRS), in 2017 the United States’ sixth largest export to China was waste and scrap. China has made it clear, however, that they will not accept recycled plastic unless it was 99.5 percent pure, which was and is an unattainable goal for many MRFs as they have an on-going battle with plastics contaminated by food, paper labels, or other materials.
Wish upon a wishful recycler
On an early August Saturday afternoon, almost everyone at the Whole Foods in Brentwood, Missouri, a small suburb of St. Louis, seems to be gathering provisions for back-to-school lunches, perhaps for cutesy and reusable Bento-style plastic boxes that are all the rage for the K-8 set. Organic strawberries are two for $5. Glossy garnet-colored sweet cherries are also on sale, as are late-season sweet corn and plump, fragrant heirloom tomatoes. Many customers appear to have the same idea—sample the goat’s milk gouda, grab a slice of mushroom pizza and a scoop of strawberry gelato, and sit in the dine-in area before leaving the air-conditioned hustle and bustle of an organic grocery store.
Nationwide, Whole Foods has employed clear visual signs to help customers recycle better. At this store, a clearly labeled sign instructs people to deposit only glass and plastic bottles and aluminum cans in the bin, and customers must intentionally pull a clear plastic lid to deposit these three accepted recycled goods. Nine years ago, Mitch Hedlund created the standardized recycling labels used at the Whole Foods like this one. In fact, Hedlund’s small yet mighty labeling initiative via Recycle Across America promises to curb consumer confusion and recycling contamination, a significant problem in the public-sector American recycling landscape, especially as China enforces the purity and types of recycled goods and scraps it will process.
One of the big problems with the decrease in quality of materials recovered from recycling is what will residential recyclers do now that China will no longer take work-intensive, low-return recyclables?
Hedlund’s work to reduce recycling contamination through standardized, color-coordinated bin labeling is especially prescient as cities across the nation work to improve the quality of the recyclables they receive from citizens.
Yet, even with the standardized labels Whole Foods uses, some rushed or well-intentioned diners still deposit used chopsticks and the plastic boxes that once housed spicy tuna avocado rolls, dollops of wasabi, and small piles of palate-cleansing ginger. “Wishful recycling,” or wish-cycling as it is also called, is accidental, common, and perverse. In fact, in the university office where this article is being written resides a recycling bin that reads, “When in doubt, recycle.” Perhaps this simple yet outdated dictum might be better phrased as, “When in doubt, read the standardized and updated list of accepted items and do your best not to contaminate this recycling bin.”
“Wishful recyclers are everywhere,” Margaret Lilly, an environmental specialist who works in the West Diversion program for the Saint Louis County Department of Public Health, said via email. “Their hearts are in the right place.”
And oftentimes, the well-recognized “chasing arrows” recyclable sign can mislead some people into thinking, “Sure, I can recycle a plastic lawn chair!” But, as Musumeci, of Brightside St. Louis, pointed out, “’Wishcycling’ can really harm the recycling process and shut down facilities for hours.” That plastic lawn chair? “It may be marked with the chasing arrows with a number inside, but this symbol only tells us what kind of plastic the chair is made from, not if it’s recyclable through our single-stream system.” Musumeci also shared that sometimes people do not know where to recycle items such as batteries, electronics, and more. “Recycling Beyond Your Blue Bin,” a database of helpful links via Saint Louis City Recycles, catalogs where everything beyond paper, cardboard, metal cans, cartons, glass jars and bottles, and plastic bottles and containers may be recycled.
What’s standardization got to do with it?
OneSTL, a regional collaboration of individuals and organizations from across the St. Louis region, is working hard to create a more consistent regional recycling message for the St. Louis region. Margaret Lilly, an environmental specialist in St. Louis County’s Waste Diversion program, wrote by email, “Having one regional recycling message with one list of accepted single-stream items and a standardized set of images will help make recycling simpler for residents in the St. Louis region. It won’t matter if you live in a suburb, the city, or on the Illinois side. Everyone will be able to put the same things in their recycling bin.”
Regional recycling outreach initiatives like OneSTL’s are promising because they seek to solve the ever-pressing recycling-bin contamination issue. The fall recycling outreach and education campaign is one of the ways OneSTL seeks to meet its waste-diversion goals—“reduce the tonnage of waste going to landfills within our wasteshed by 30 percent by 2030 from a 2015 baseline.” Based on what the average contamination rates are for curbside recycling programs (hovering near 25 percent), OneSTL’s future campaign is especially critical.
NIMBY, the international edition
Joseph Pickard, chief economist and director of commodities at ISRI, acknowledged that many of the stricter regulations China has placed on public- and private-sector recycling and scrap commodities have been in the works for some time, especially restrictions on recycling plastics. Yet, Pickard said, China’s August 8 announcement to impose a 25 percent tariff on all scrap imports from the United States is likely retaliatory action for President Donald Trump’s 25 percent tariffs on over $34 billion of Chinese goods exported to the United States.
Despite the increasing trade tensions between the United States and China, Pickard said now is a good time to get the United States’ recycling and scrap infrastructure in order.
“Ultimately, we need to increase the quality of materials that we are processing,” Pickard said. “We see increased demand for recycling equipment and technology for recycling is improving. If you talk to many manufacturers of recycling equipment, these companies’ orders are full for the next 12-18 months. In the bigger big picture, everybody has a role to play and it starts at the local level with the public and recyclers sorting recyclables properly.”
Despite the increasing trade tensions between the United States and China, Pickard said now is a good time to get the United States’ recycling and scrap infrastructure in order.
“Quality is a big focus as there is a demand here in the U.S. and overseas for quality recycled and scrap goods,” Pickard continued. “Whether we’re processing recyclables and scrap here or overseas, scrap processors are going to invest in equipment to produce higher quality goods. That’s the path we’re going to be headed down now. China may have propelled the push for higher-quality scrap and recycling, but we were headed down this route anyway.”
Nationally, as cities and towns feel the effects of not having more American recycling processors in place, more and more recyclables are ending up in landfills en masse, and cities and towns across the nation are canceling or scaling back recycling programs. As Bill Bensing, Kirkwood’s public services director, wrote in a memo to other city officials, “This drastic shift in the single-stream recycling market is largely due to China placing more stringent contamination limits on recyclable materials. It is thought to be the beginning of the end of single-stream recycling as we know it today.”
Is Tierney’s vision relevant today?
In response to recycling’s “failures,” Tierney’s 1996 article did advocate the still timely merits of the pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) program well ahead of many municipalities’ adoption of the plan. The PAYT method, which dates to San Francisco’s version of PAYT in 1932 and Austria’s in 1945, charges customers unit-based pricing, so the more you throw away, the more you pay. Many municipalities who use a PAYT program charge customers based on which size trash bin they sign up for or administer a bag-based PAYT, like Portland, Maine. PAYT has support from groups such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
In fact, Recycling Today published June 2018 data comparing municipalities in southern Maine that have a PAYT program via WasteZero versus those cities and towns that do not. The results were impressive—for the communities that used PAYT, citizens generate annually 44.8 percent less trash per capita and have a 62.3 percent higher recycling rate than cities and towns that do not.
There is an encompassing perspective that thinking about and dealing with our waste, and thereby our consumption, is beneath us— “The citizens of the richest society in the history of the planet suddenly became obsessed with personally handling their own waste,” or “Why train children to be garbage sorters?”
While Tierney’s progressive advocacy of PAYT is significant, the way he casts environmentalists and recyclers as holier-than-thou types who recycle just to generate good feelings and grab public money seems unfairly dismissive and short-sighted. Tierney’s emphasis on the “personal responsibility” of trash-making and -disposing misses the point that in 1996, 2015, or the present day, we already have personal responsibility and choice when it comes to recycling. We can elect to do it, or not. If our city or town has zero-waste goals, we can participate, or not. Waste diversion and management are public services and a public good, and perhaps that is what makes Tierney’s articles so curmudgeonly. There is an encompassing perspective that thinking about and dealing with our waste, and thereby our consumption, is beneath us— “The citizens of the richest society in the history of the planet suddenly became obsessed with personally handling their own waste,” or “Why train children to be garbage sorters?”
The problem with such a haughty perspective is that somewhere down the municipal waste and recycling lines someone, somewhere, is going to have to sort through the muck. Last year and years prior it was often China. Now it is us. Most of us do not have the luxury, especially if more pay-as-you-throw plans are enacted, to blithely throw away all the things away.
More landfills are not the answer
Perhaps what is most unsettling about Tierney’s on-going rationalization of throwing away more items because “recycling is wasteful,” is his solution does not actively consider the long-term risks increased-capacity landfills pose. It is not uncommon, even today, to have problems with groundwater and soil contamination in landfills, not to mention the problems of illegal dumping and increased greenhouse gas emissions.
St. Louisans know intimately the human and environmental costs associated with ill-managed landfills, such as the pernicious stink of the Bridgeton Sanitary Landfill and the West Lake Landfill Superfund site. A subsurface fire still burns under the Bridgeton Sanitary Landfill located 600 feet from the West Lake Landfill, where illegally dumped radioactive waste from the WWII-era Manhattan Project rests. In fact, the Bridgeton Sanitary Landfill fire is expected to smolder until 2024. In July 2018, the State of Missouri reached a $16-million-dollar settlement with Republic Services, the company responsible for the Bridgeton Sanitary Landfill. Of that $16 million, $12.5 million will be placed into a “community project fund” to compensate residents affected by the landfill and $3.5 million will go to the state for penalties and damages.
Even if we were to put more recyclables in landfills as a choice of “private responsibility,” as Tierney puts it, the City of St. Louis, for example, appears to not yet have the infrastructure in place to handle larger amounts of trash. As the City stands, with no Refuse Commissioner on the job since Nick Yung retired August 1st and an aging fleet of limited trash trucks, St. Louis has a distinct and odiferous problem with trash. Garbage continues to pile up in alleys and on the curbs of St. Louis, and unlike what Noah M. Sachs wrote, we are beginning, finally, to see how our “outsized consumption is causing outsized damage.” The truth is, recycling alone could never fix America’s overconsumption problem. In 2015, the average American generated 4.5 pounds of municipal solid waste (MSW) each day, with only 1.6 pounds redirected for recycling or composting. Meanwhile, Swedish residents generate 2.20 pounds of MSW per person per day, British citizens 2.98 pounds per person per day, and Germans 3.71 pounds per person per day. The bottom line is if we want less waste, we must do all three: reduce, reuse, and recycle.
Recycling as we know it, under today’s political and economic pressures, has and will continue to evolve. We may have to pay more, we may have to do more to recycle, but does that mean that recycling is futile? No, of course not. Yet, it is imperative to acknowledge that public-sector recycling is at a crossroads. We will have to look long and hard at our overdependency on single-use plastics and heavy packaging and throw away less, which ultimately means consuming less.
As Marc J. Rogoff and David E. Ross ask in Waste Management & Research, “So should we sound the death knell for recycling in the USA? We would argue that this is not necessarily the case, and there is a way to cobble together a solution by confronting some of the myths being painted on the state of recycling.” Namely, we must confront the myth that recycling is not an essential public service, as worthy of public support and funding as first responders, clean water, and safe and passable streets.
The truth is, recycling alone could never fix America’s overconsumption problem. In 2015, the average American generated 4.5 pounds of municipal solid waste (MSW) each day, with only 1.6 pounds redirected for recycling or composting. Meanwhile, Swedish residents generate 2.20 pounds of MSW per person per day, British citizens 2.98 pounds per person per day, and Germans 3.71 pounds per person per day. The bottom line is if we want less waste, we must do all three: reduce, reuse, and recycle.
While unstable global recycling markets make us reconsider best practices, the recycling of recycling is not a new phenomenon. In the 1960s and 1970s recycling was not invented so much as reimagined. Americans realized then, as many do now, that our massive appetites generated massive waste. In the second half of the 20th century, a recycling ethos was reborn from simply squeezing the most out of materials to dealing with the waste we produced.
Now, at the first half of the 21st century, we are confronted with new challenges. To say recycling is easy and there are no problems with the current system is simplistic at best and patronizing at worst. Yet, there are answers to the challenges ahead—educate the public about the real costs and best practices of recycling, use less even when recycling is an option, standardize what can be recycled across municipalities, improve recycling bin contamination by continuing public outreach, develop better domestic infrastructure to process and sell America’s public-sector recyclables, consider and address the benefits and disadvantages of single-stream recycling, and rethink our destructive addiction to single-use plastics and overpackaging.
Ultimately, as writer, farmer, and environmentalist Wendell Berry wrote, “the Earth is what we all have in common.” That common ground is sacred, and recycling, while not a panacea, still has a big role to play in better protecting our home.