Recycling Is Garbage

“All I’ve been thinking about all week is garbage. I mean, I just can’t stop thinking about it. . . . I’ve just gotten real concerned over what’s gonna happen. . . . I started feeling this way . . . when that barge was stranded.”

— Opening lines of the 1989 film “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” spoken to a psychiatrist by a woman whose real problems — sexual and marital unhappiness — have nothing to do with municipal solid waste.

AT THE TIME AMERICANS BECAME RACKED WITH GARBAGE GUILT, businesses were already recycling millions of tons of trash a year. They were voluntarily — and profitably — recycling newsprint, office paper, cardboard, aluminum and steel. But the barge’s plight convinced everyone that voluntary enterprise was not enough. As Newsweek noted, the Mobro’s saga was “to the trash crisis what the sinking of the Lusitania was to World War I.” The magazine’s cover story, titled “Buried Alive,” warned: “With rare exceptions during wartime, Americans have not been adept at making individual sacrifices for the common good. That mentality will have to change. Otherwise, the dumps will cover the country coast to coast and the trucks will stop in everybody’s backyard.”

Suddenly, just as central planning was going out of fashion in eastern Europe, America devised a national five-year plan for trash. The Environmental Protection Agency promulgated a “Waste Hierarchy” that ranked trash-disposal options: recycling at the top, composting and waste-to-energy incinerators in the middle, landfills at the bottom.

The E.P.A.’s five-year goal, to recycle 25 percent of municipal trash, was announced in a speech in early 1988 by J. Winston Porter, an assistant administrator of the agency. Even as Porter was setting the goal, he realized that it was presumptuous for a bureaucrat in Washington to tell everyone in America what to do with their trash. “After all the publicity about the barge,” Porter recalls, “I sat down with some engineers in my office to estimate how much municipal waste could be recycled. At that time, about 10 percent was being recycled. We looked at the components of waste, made a few quick calculations and figured that it was reasonable to reach a level of 25 percent within five years. It wasn’t a highly quantified thing. Some of the staff didn’t even want me to mention a figure. But I thought it would be good to set a target, as long as it was strictly voluntary and didn’t involve a lot of regulations.”

Politicians across the country had bigger ideas. State and city officials enacted laws mandating recycling and setting arbitrary goals even higher than the E.P.A.’s. Most states set rigid quotas, typically requiring that at least 40 percent of trash be recycled, often even more — 50 percent in New York and California, 60 percent in New Jersey, 70 percent in Rhode Island. Industries were pressured to set their own goals. Municipalities followed the Waste Hierarchy by building waste-to-energy incinerators and starting thousands of curbside recycling programs — all in the belief that it would be cheaper than landfilling. But the incinerators turned out to be disastrously expensive, and the recycling programs produced a glut of paper, glass and plastic that no one wanted to buy.

So recycling devotees hit on a new solution: if people aren’t willing to buy our precious garbage, we’ll force them. The Federal Government and dozens of states passed laws that required public agencies, newspapers and other companies to purchase recycled materials. These regulations, along with a wide variety of tax breaks and subsidies, have pushed the national rate of recycling up to Porter’s goal of 25 percent — an expensive achievement, since the programs lose money. But that’s still not enough. Environmental groups are pressuring local governments to expand their recycling programs to meet the goals set in law — goals that, according to the official who helped start the whole movement, are impossible to reach.

“People in New York and other places are tilting at recycling windmills,” says Porter, who left the E.P.A. in 1989 and is now president of a consulting firm, the Waste Policy Center in Leesburg, Va. “There aren’t many more materials in garbage that are worth recycling.” Porter has been advising cities and states to abandon their unrealistic goals, but politicians are terrified of coming out against recycling. How could they explain it to the voters? How could they explain it to their children?

The Evangelist’s Alarms

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