The Value of Waste Reduction, or, What the New York Times Got Wrong About Recycling

If you care about solid waste reduction, by now you’ve probably read John Tierney’s New York Times opinion piece denigrating the value of recycling. It’s a long piece, but in a nutshell, Tierney’s two-fold argument is this: There’s no point in recycling unless it makes economic sense—and it doesn’t make economic sense.

He’s missing the point.

Tierney’s argument is too narrow, and his evidence is too weak (here’s a good detailed fact-check). He’s looking at—and misunderstanding—just one small piece of the puzzle, while countless examples of success shine just outside his line of vision.recyc $ imageHere are three things John Tierney got wrong in his argument against recycling:

  1. Recycling is just one tool in the larger fight for waste reduction. The column treats recycling as an end in itself, rather than simply one of several ways to accomplish the greater goal of reducing waste. It acts as if the recyclables collected by municipalities—paper, glass, plastic, and aluminum—are all that can be diverted from the waste stream. But looking at those items in isolation doesn’t even come close to understanding everything that can be done to reduce waste, and the value of doing so. Yes, the municipal recycling stream is a big part of waste diversion, but so are composting, textiles donation, source reduction, and reuse. Recycling is an extraordinarily important tool for reducing the cost and environmental impact of waste, but we must not lose sight of the fact that it is one tool among many used in the fight for waste reduction—the ultimate goal.
  1. Recycling helps reduce the cost of waste disposal. Tierney points to the cost of recycling in municipal budgets as if that alone represented its financial impact. Even setting aside the environmental benefits of recycling, he fails to consider the other ways that recycling helps cities’ bottom lines. Most significantly, recycling, like the other waste reduction methods, redirects materials from expensive landfills and incinerators and into more financially advantageous uses. Even when the market for recyclable goods is relatively depressed (as it is now, but likely won’t be forever), in most parts of the country diverting material from a landfill or incinerator into recycling can make each ton of waste less expensive to a city and its taxpayers. With the total cost of the U.S. waste stream at nearly $400 billion each year, that can make a big difference.
  1. When it’s done right, waste reduction can have a profound financial impact. Finally—and perhaps most importantly—Tierney fails to grasp the magnitude of waste reduction’s financial power. When cities and towns take meaningful steps to reduce their waste (ideally through a comprehensive mix of more recycling, organics and textiles diversion, source reductions, and reuse), they can see financial benefits that municipal leaders often only dream about. One example that can stand for many is the city of Worcester, Mass., which began a bag-based pay-as-you-throw program in 1993. In the 21 years that followed, Worcester cut its trash tonnage by 55%, cutting disposal spending by $21.4 million dollars and solid waste operational costs $26.4 million. That’s a total benefit of $47.8 million dollars, or $2.3 million per year, from waste reduction.

The hundreds of cities and towns that WasteZero works with across the U.S. have seen the financial benefits of waste reduction, reducing their waste by nearly 50% on average and cumulatively bringing hundreds of millions of dollars of positive financial impact. They are demonstrating profound success where John Tierney sees only failure: cutting trash, boosting recycling, and creating a sustainable culture of waste reduction that benefits everybody.

There’s far too much at stake to call it quits on recycling; failure simply isn’t an option. Tierney may be willing to declare defeat in the face of countless examples of great success, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of us have to.

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