Posted by: terrapraeta | January 28, 2008

The Three R’s


They took all the trees
And put them in a tree museum
And they charged the people
A dollar and a half just to seem ’em
Don’t it always seem to go,
That you don’t know what you’ve got ‘Til it’s gone
They paved paradise And put up a parking lot
Hey farmer, farmer
Put away that DDT now
Give me spots on my apples
But LEAVE me the birds and the bees
Please! Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got ‘Til its gone
They paved paradise And put up a parking lot

Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi

So I was surfing on BlogMad the other day and ran across a fellow Philosophy Blog Warrier’s site: Jane Lake Makes a Mistake (links unavailable). In general, I find that Jane and I don’t really agree on very much, and this was no exception. In fact, it through me into a bit of a tizzy. So of course, my only reasonable response is to write an article, right?

In this particular case, the topic was Recycling and an article published in the New York Times back in 1996: Recycling is Garbage by John Tierney. Now, I will be the first to admit that recycling is a program: and programs don’t solve problems they merely alleviate symptoms. That being said, sometimes it can be quite worthwhile to alleviate symptoms while you work out solutions. Of course, our culture likes to skip that second part – but that is a separate issue.

I also have to say, that at the very end of the article, John makes some suggestions that I am not necessarily opposed to: however, knowing human nature, it is quite likely that most or at least many people never read the full 7000+ words and therefore, never got to the good part. So lets talk about the parts that a lot of people probably did read.

John starts his article with the inevitable, cute story of grade school children learning the in’s and out’s of the three “R’s”: Reduce, ReUse, Recycle. The class goes on a litter hunt, and then returns to go over what they have found. Assorted compostable materials, a couple of plastic soda-pop bottles and other unmentioned ‘stinky’ stuff. The kids conclusion? “People shouldn’t throw away paper or anything. They should recycle it.” Tierney’s conclusion?

The pile of garbage included the equipment used by the children in the litter hunt: a dozen plastic bags and two dozen pairs of plastic gloves. The cost of this recycling equipment obviously exceeded the value of the recyclable items recovered. The equipment also seemed to be a greater burden on the environment, because the bags and gloves would occupy more space in a landfill than the two bottles.

Sounds reasonable on its face: until you stop and think about it for a moment. Grade School children sent out to scavenge garbage: of course they wore gloves, but that had nothing to do with recycling. Of course they used plastic bags to collect the garbage, but the same is true regardless of whether any recycling takes place or not. If it were prison work gangs, sent out to pick up garbage along the highways, they too would wear gloves and use plastic bags. So is there honestly anyvalidity to this frame? I would assert that, in this context at least, there is not.

So let’s look deeper. Tierney devotes the next two sections to the history of recycling in the US, back to 1987 when the Mobro 4000> garbage barge wandered the Atlantic seaboard unable to offload its cargo of New York City garbage. But then he gets back into the meat of his thesis:

We’re a wicked throwaway society. Plastic packaging and fast-food containers may seem wasteful, but they actually save resources and reduce trash. The typical household in Mexico City buys fewer packaged goods than an American household, but it produces one-third more garbage, chiefly because Mexicans buy fresh foods in bulk and throw away large portions that are unused, spoiled or stale. Those apples in Dittersdorf’s slide, protected by plastic wrap and foam, are less likely to spoil. The lightweight plastic packaging requires much less energy to manufacture and transport than traditional alternatives like cardboard or paper. Food companies have switched to plastic packaging because they make money by using resources efficiently. A typical McDonald’s discards less than two ounces of garbage for each customer served — less than what’s generated by a typical meal at home.

There are a couple of very weak assumptions here. First and foremost, that it is entirely reasonable to irradiate, chemically preserve and ship fresh produce thousands of miles from its point of origin so that we may have mangoes in New York in January. Of course, once that assumption is established, it becomes quite clear that plastic packaging on our fruits and vegetables is the only reasonable response to spoilage. And this makes clear the first point I noticed in the entire article: Tierney introduces his subject discussing the the three R’s: but nowhere, in the later part of the article do you again find a reference to Reducing our consumption or Reusing materials directly (aside from a snide comment about reusing staples).

Next, he points at residents of Mexico City, whom, although they consume far less, somehow produce more garbage. He does go on to explain how this happens, while ignoring the importance of these facts. Third world peoples produce mostly organic, compostable refuse. Composting Materials can be done on any scale with reasonable efficiency, so the answer to this (if they are not already doing something of the sort) is household, community or (if absolutely necessary) city wide composting. It is inexpensive, relatively non-labor intensive and it produces a product that can be used by anyone: good organic soil amendments.

Third, he points to McDonald’s as a beacon of environmental hope: what nonsense. Two ounces of non-biodegradable, cheap plastic crap, compared with some amount more of mostly recyclable or compost able materials. There really is no comparison. Additionally, I have reason to question that figure: If I consider the bag, the napkins, the sandwich box, the fry box, the plastic sheaved cup, the straw, the salt and pepper packets or ketchup packets: that is certainly more than 2 ounces of garbage and that does not begin to account for the materials they throw away from the kitchen.

We’re squandering irreplaceable natural resources. Yes, a lot of trees have been cut down to make today’s newspaper. But even more trees will probably be planted in their place. America’s supply of timber has been increasing for decades, and the nation’s forests have three times more wood today than in 1920. “We’re not running out of wood, so why do we worry so much about recycling paper?” asks Jerry Taylor, the director of natural resource studies at the Cato Institute. “Paper is an agricultural product, made from trees grown specifically for paper production. Acting to conserve trees by recycling paper is like acting to conserve cornstalks by cutting back on corn consumption.”

[Later]Saving a tree is a mixed blessing. When there’s less demand for virgin wood pulp, timber companies are likely to sell some of their tree farms — maybe to condominium developers.

Now this one is kind of slick. Watch this:

Premise: Trees Are Cut Down To Make Paper
Premise: Trees are planted to replace those we cut down
Therefore Our Nations Forests are increasing.

Its great that our timber industry is engaging in replanting. And I certainly would prefer a tree farm to a parking lot or shopping mall. But planting trees: Particularly a single species of trees lined up in rows, has virtually no relationship to healthy forest. So we can keep cutting and replanting trees, pulling out all the stops on chemical fertilizers and pesticides to try our damnedest to make them grow, so that we can cut them down and make paper… or we can recycle the paper we already have and allow our tree farms to revert to full ecological forests once more.

Our choice is not between tree farms and parking lots, but between more tree farms and less forest and more forest and less farms. Do we want farms that provide a simple product that we may or may not need? Or do we want natural resources (like healthy forests) that provide both tangible and intangible benefits across a wide range of human needs?

Every time a sanitation department crew picks up a load of bottles and cans from the curb, New York City loses money. The recycling program consumes resources. It requires extra administrators and a continual public relations campaign explaining what to do with dozens of different products — recycle milk jugs but not milk cartons, index cards but not construction paper. (Most New Yorkers still don’t know the rules.) It requires enforcement agents to inspect garbage and issue tickets. Most of all, it requires extra collection crews and trucks. Collecting a ton of recyclable items is three times more expensive than collecting a ton of garbage because the crews pick up less material at each stop. For every ton of glass, plastic and metal that the truck delivers to a private recycler, the city currently spends $200 more than it would spend to bury the material in a landfill.

This is where he really got under my craw, however. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you have probably seen some discussion where I have referenced the inverted pyramid our society represents: from Nesting Dolls

He described this relationship in terms of nested sets. In the real world, culture is nested within ecology and economics is nested within culture: in other words, cultural development is dependent upon the ecological realities of our world, and economics are dependent upon both our cultural constructs and the ecological reality ‘beneath’ them. However, in our modern culture, we invert this relationship. We determine how we are going to live and behave based upon economic concerns. Then once we know what is or is not economically viable, we then look at cultural considerations and eventually, perhaps, we consider the ecological impact of those decisions. It does a lot to explain how we have managed to so seriously discount ecological concerns that we are in danger of destroying our own life support system.

So yeah, you know what: if the City of New York is losing money on recycling, then maybe its time to build a better recycling program. But continuing to clean up our shit? Really, not negotiable.

But as long as we are talking about the financial side of things, lets talk about some possibilities to make recycling more useful even if I disagree it is Garbage, it certainly could stand some improvements.

First, in any system like this, the key is the ‘re’:

Reduce: I believe that there is a lot of potential in various movements trying to reconnect communities with themselves. Given a choice between a $5.25 job at Walmart and $.80 Campbell’s soup or a $10 job at the local Soup Nazi and $2.00 homemade soup, what would you take?

What does that have to do with reducing? Two Thirds of All Oil Used in the Modern World goes for Transportation. Whether we are talking about pollution or health, economic efficiency or sustainability, the transporting of basic products and service across the globe has got to stop – or at least slow considerably. Note: specifically basic products. Luxury items can still be traded for a good long time, if we stop wasting our resources on shipping under priced coffee out of Africa in exchange for overpriced wheat.

ReUse: We have gotten really, obscenely fond of ‘disposable’ everything. The day I first saw the disposable cell phone, I knew we were in danger of losing this ‘war’. The crazy part of it is that I don’t think most disposables are terribly useful to us as consumers: but they are incredibly useful to companies that want to guarantee they still have customers next year. Of course this applies even moreso to items that are not supposed to be disposable, but that have become so shoddily made and cheap to purchase (thanks to cheap third world labor) that everyone just accepts when these items break after three uses.

So I am a big fan of high quality products: and more importantly, products that I can grasp a sense of durability from: my favorite kitchen skillets are those cast iron pans I have bought at rummage sales/ antique malls / flea markets etc over the years. I am intending to buy myself a meat grinder and a grain mill here in the next six months. In both cases, I intend to buy cast iron, hand crank mechanisms. Why? Because hand cranks don’t wear out after a thousand revolutions (like today’s appliance motors do seem to do)

And of course there is the obvious: food scraps and shredded newspapers and leaves and broken tree limbs become compost: I’ll be damned if I let the city haul all that good stuff away for me. Heavy Cardboard becomes the base of my sheet mulch for each new garden bed I put in. Glass Jars, Tin Cans, plastic jugs: all of these items can be used at least a few times before shipping off to the recycling plant.

And Finally Recycle: About a year ago, I read Paul Hawkins’ The Ecology of Commerce. Its an insightful book on taking the systems we currently use and making them economically, socially and environmentally more efficient. One of the cases he points to (and I know I will get this wrong in the details, but bear with me) is a cyclical relationship set up in Germany. It was a power plant, that sold its super heated water to a manufacturer that could use the heat in their processes, which then sold some byproduct of their manufacturing to be used as compost on a farm – or something like that. The point, was that all of the waste products were re-conceptualized as assets: just the way it works in natural, healthy ecologies.

So if we want to see Recycling become a viable system we need to treat it as a system with inputs and outputs all of which have value in some context. And if we find we are generating waste products that are not, and can never be of value to us, to the earth, to the biosphere, then perhaps we need to reanalyze what we are doing and find another way. Humans are inventive creatures. Somewhere in recent years we seem to have forgotten that and it’s showing.

Note: I picked only a few, particularly insightful paragraphs from Tierney’s article to discuss. However, if you read the article and believe that you have found a valid argument against recycling that I have not addressed, please feel free to bring it up here, and I will be happy to address the suggested passage.

(Originally Posted November 17, 2006) 

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