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 paradigm.
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
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