The End of Recycling? The New York Times and Grist Face Off.

by Kelly Corbin ’16

Sunday readers of The New York Times might have had a bit of shock along with their morning coffee upon reading John Tierney’s opinion piece, “The Reign of Recycling,” which detailed the futility of separating paper from aluminum. Among the aghast was Ben Adler, a reporter for Grist, an online environmental magazine. His response, “Is recycling as awful as the New York Times claims? Not remotely.” took on Tierney’s piece and strongly advocates for us to continue rinsing out plastic yogurt containers and composting those banana peels. Both articles make good points and yet both dodge the real issue.

Is the debate over landfills vs. recycling really focussing on the problem? Image: iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Is the debate over landfills vs. recycling really focussing on the right problem? Image: iStockphoto/Thinkstock

In “The Reign of Recycling,” John Tierney revisits an argument he first made in 1996. At that time, many of his critics claimed that recycling as a national movement was too new for most of Tierney’s points to be valid. Now armed with nearly 20 years’ of data, Tierney waded back into the debate. He argues that recycling is considerably more expensive than simply burying waste in landfills and that it does little to offset our carbon footprint. The United States has a lot of open land, so Tierney believes the concerns about landfills overflowing are invalid—there will always be somewhere to put our trash. He also points out that the decreasing need to manufacture new products has a negative economic impact on the communities that are supported by that manufacturing.

Ben Adler’s piece for Grist dissects Tierney’s article; he argues that Tierney was selective and dishonest in his presentation of the evidence against recycling. Prices on recyclable materials vary from year to year and by location, so claiming that current prices are a strong argument against recycling practices is false, Adler states. Communities that are located near areas of natural resource extraction may benefit economically in the short term, but also experience health issues from the resulting pollution. And communities in the immediate areas are not the only ones affected by mining, drilling, etc.–those effects can also be felt far and wide. Adler explains that space is no longer a driving reason to recycle—decreasing the need to extract natural resources and lowering energy consumption are the leading reasons today. That being said, while some places may have lots of room to devote to landfills, other parts of the United States do not and would have to pay to ship their waste “away.”

Away. I get stuck on that word. Because whether an item I’ve purchased gets tossed in the trash or goes off to be recycled, it’s still going “away.” Away from my view, away from my responsibility, away from my thinking, away. I’m confident there is no actual place called “away.” So what if we could put down Tierney v. Adler and come up with a better model? William McDonough and Michael Braungart argue for just such a system in their book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. Their system hinges on the idea that “waste equals food.” Items that pass through our lives contain nutrients, whether they are biological or technical in nature (ideally, those technical nutrients are nonharmful synthetic materials). If “waste equals food,” then these nutrients should never end up trapped in a landfill but cycled on into new products of equal or higher quality. Even current recycling systems rarely meet the “waste equals food” standard because most products sent to the recycling bin get “downcycled”–turned into items of lesser quality which will inevitably end up in a landfill. Truly embracing McDonough’s and Braungart’s concept means a world in which both Tierney and Adler are irrelevant, because there is simply no “away.” Now that’s a story worth waking up for.

Kelly Corbin LinkedInKelly Corbin ‘16 is a South Portland, ME based ecological designer focused on creating public green spaces. She is a current student at the Conway School.