15 September 2009

Tonight we will be working on the dream of reducing waste. Our guest will be Chip Haynes, author of a new book, Wearing Smaller Shoes. He starts with the now familiar 3Rs of Reduce, Recycle, and Reuse, and adds a fourth, Refuse. He has myriad ideas on how we can reduce our ecological footprint right around home.

Does Recycling Work? Some Global Opinions

In preparing for this show, we were curious about an assertion that we have heard from time to time: that recycling is a drop in the environmental bucket, inconsequential, a “feel-good” activity for greenies.  We wondered, “Does recycling work?”

In our research, we learned, first, that there is no easy yes-no answer to that question, and second, that recycling is so complex an issue that one has to search for multiple answers.

Much of the controversy can be traced back to 1996 New York Times Magazine article by John Tierney called “Recycling Is Garbage.” He began the article by following around some third graders who found a lot of trash and learned the point of their teacher’s lesson: that we throw away too much stuff.  But, Tierney also observed that most of what the kids found was not worth recycling and was probably most economically disposed of in landfills.  Tierney then went on to describe what he regarded as the myth of recycling.  He wrote:

Rinsing out tuna cans and tying up newspapers may make you feel virtuous, but recycling could be America’s most wasteful activity.

A grand national experiment [was] begun in 1987 […] back when the Three R’s had nothing to do with garbage. [The new 3Rs became a mantra of environmentalists and journalists: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle]. That year a barge named the Mobro 4000 wandered thousands of miles trying to unload its cargo of Long Islanders’ trash, and its journey had a strange effect on America. The citizens of the richest society in the history of the planet suddenly became obsessed with personally handling their own waste.

Believing that there was no more room in landfills, Americans concluded that recycling was their only option. Their intentions were good and their conclusions seemed plausible. Recycling does sometimes make sense — for some materials in some places at some times. But the simplest and cheapest option is usually to bury garbage in an environmentally safe landfill. And [John Tierney contined] since there’s no shortage of landfill space (the crisis of 1987 was a false alarm), there’s no reason to make recycling a legal or moral imperative. Mandatory recycling programs aren’t good for posterity. They offer mainly short-term benefits to a few groups — politicians, public relations consultants, environmental organizations, waste-handling corporations — while diverting money from genuine social and environmental problems. Recycling may be the most wasteful activity in modern America: a waste of time and money, a waste of human and natural resources.


John Tierney’s article has been rebutted regularly since then by numerous individuals and groups, including the National Resources Defense Council, which marshaled evidence showing that:

  • Recycling conserves natural resources, such as timber, water, and mineral ores, from domestic and imported sources.
  • Recycling prevents pollution caused by manufacturing from virgin resources.
  • Recycling saves energy.
  • Recycling reduces the need for landfilling and incineration and helps avoid the pollution produced by these technologies.
  • Recycling helps protect and expand manufacturing jobs in America.
  • Recycling engenders a sense of community involvement and responsibility.


NRDC also cites recycling milestones going back to 1970.  Their website observes.

People have reused and recycled materials for centuries out of necessity. But recycling legislation and curbside programs in the United States date back only to the 1970s. Here is a brief timeline of how recycling of waste from households, schools and businesses has evolved over the last several decades.

1970 – The first Earth Day brings national attention to the problem of increasing waste and the importance of recycling.

1971 – The first “Bottle Bill” is born: Oregon introduces a refundable deposit (a nickel) on beer and soda bottles as an incentive to recycle.

1973 – Berkeley, California starts the nation’s first curbside recycling program.

1976 – The federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act is enacted to close open dumps, create standards for landfills, incinerators and the disposal of hazardous waste.

1988 – The number of curbside recycling programs increases to about 1,050.

1990 – McDonald’s stops using Styrofoam containers. Earth Day’s 20th anniversary theme is recycling.

1992 – Curbside programs continue to pop up around the country, bringing the total to 5,404.

1996 – The U.S. recycles at a rate of 25 percent; EPA sets a new goal of 35 percent.

2000 – The EPA confirms a link between global warming and waste, showing that reducing our garbage and recycling cut greenhouse gas emissions.d.

2007 – Five states pass laws requiring that unwanted electronics be recycled. San Francisco becomes the first U.S. city to prohibit the distribution of plastic bags by grocery stores.

In an article on the Past, Present, and Future of Recycling, the National Defense Resources Council identifies current recycling issues and problems, observing:

The amount of material we recycle today — 81 million tons a year — equals the total quantity of garbage the United States produced in 1960. Today, Americans create 250 million tons of municipal waste in a year, and about 15 billion tons a year of all other types of industrial wastes. Experts say that continuing to increase our recycling rates will help pull us out of the garbage heap and reduce global warming emissions. And that a necessary counterpart to that strategy is to cut down on the waste we produce in the first place

[…] Here are some other ways to work towards zero waste:

Keep organics and recyclables out of landfills and incinerators. More than 60 percent of household waste in the United States is recyclable or compostable. But Americans only compost 8 percent of their waste. Composting prepares organic waste like leftover food and lawn trimmings for reuse as fertilizer instead of leaving it to decompose in landfills or to combust in incinerators, which emit greenhouse gases and other air pollutants. Creating more municipal composting programs would boost composting rates. Such programs exist in only a few cities, and they’re outnumbered more than 2 to 1 by curbside recycling programs.

Put trash cans on diets. Much of the waste we dump in our trash cans doesn’t need to be there. Cutting back on product packaging, promoting reusable bags over paper and plastic, using sponges instead of paper towels, and favoring mugs or glasses over disposable containers are just a few ways to reduce waste

Manage electronic waste. Discarded electronics — old computers, broken cell phones, obsolete television sets — form the fastest-growing element of our waste stream. Americans threw out 2 million tons of tech trash in 2005 and only recycled about 380,000 tons. Nine states have laws in place that require the recycling of electronics, and several other states are working on new e-waste laws. NRDC supports laws that put the responsibility on manufacturers to recycle their used products, and for designing less toxic, more recyclable gadgets in the first place.

Expand bottle bills. In 2005, 2 million tons of plastic bottles in the United States ended up in the trash instead of in recycling bins. State container deposit laws, known as “bottle bills”, are long overdue for an upgrade. Container deposit laws have proven to be the most effective approach to collecting bottles and cans. But right now, only 11 states have bottle bills, and most of them include only beer and soda bottles — not water bottles, which accounted for 14 percent of bottled beverages in 2005. A national bill with a higher deposit would give a huge boost to our bottle recycling rates.

Ditch plastic bags. According to the EPA, the United States consumes about 380 billion plastic bags a year and recycles less than 5 percent of them. Getting in the habit of reusing shopping bags — as is common in some other countries — could reduce that number significantly and prevent billions of plastic bags from ending up in landfills (not to mention in the ocean, on trees and floating by your window).


Finally, in discussing whether or not recycling programs are effective, Cecil Adams writes on StraightDope dot Com:

Forget the esoteric arguments about externalities, finite resources, and so on–in the end recycling will (or won’t) work because it is (or isn’t) cheaper than throwing stuff away. This varies with the material being recycled. As a general proposition, any manufactured product that is (a) heavy or expensive in relation to its bulk, (b) homogeneous, and (c) easily separable from the waste stream by consumers can be recycled economicly. Metals, notably steel and aluminum, are the obvious examples; both have high recycling rates. Surprisingly, so does newsprint. The poor candidates, at the moment, are plastics and mixed paper (including magazines). Plastics are too light and heterogeneous, while mixed paper contains too many contaminants. In the end we may conclude that this junk is best consigned to landfills. But given the advance of technology, who knows? We’re in the midst of a great national experiment, and we’d be foolish at this stage to prejudge the results.


Our Questions for Chip Haynes

Our guest tonight is Chip Haynes, author of Wearing Smaller Shoes.

  • What motivated you to write this book?
  • You warn people about greenwashing. What is greenwashing? Can you give some examples? You talk about shopping in other parts of the book. What are some guidelines you would recommend to people when they shop?
  • The three Rs are in pretty common currency, but you recommend the four Rs. What are they? (BTW, we interviewed a vermiculture and recycling expert a couple of weeks ago, and his fourth R was Rot—which is great for composting—both conventional and worm compost.)
  • Can you tell us a little about the process you went through to downsize your footprint? What did you do first? What was the easiest thing you did to simplify your lives? What was the hardest thing you’ve done?
  • You spend a bit of the book talking about oil as a significant impact on your decision to decrease your footprint. Can you explain your thinking on this issue?
  • You also say that you think recycling is less than trendy? Do you think that’s in the process of changing? If so, why? If not, why not?
  • You have lots of tricks for decreasing our use of energy at home. Tell us about some of them. Tell us about what surprise energy users are in our houses? And what exactly do energy star ratings mean?
  • I was a little surprised that you sort of poo-poo solar and power. Why? Are there situations where you support those technologies? What better ways are there for creating electricity?
  • Do you have advice for those of us who do use lots of gadgets for reducing our power use? (huge power used by new TVs, BUT less radiation produced!)
  • So much of what you describe that allows a reduction of the use of power seems tied to living in Florida. How can these ideas be adapted for my friend who live in Michigan? And what about people who don’t have huge shade trees or the best placement of their house for prevailing winds?
  • Tell us about some of your suggestions for saving water. Why is that important?
  • Have you considered getting rid of your grass?
  • You claim early in the book that you and your wife recycle about 95 percent of everything you use. That seems like a lot of recycling! How have you gone about achieving that number? Describe your formal and informal recycling programs.
  • How much time does all your recycling take you? Your process seems very complicated.
  • What do you know about what happens to recycled materials?
  • Tell us how you handle your food waste.
  • How  can we better transport ourselves?

                          The book is Wearing Smaller Shoes: Living Light on the Big Blue Marble, by our guest, Chip Haynes. The book is published by New Society Publishers of British Columbia.

                          Playlist for Ecotopia #51:  The 4Rs

                          1. Working On A Dream     3:30    Bruce Springsteen    Working On A Dream

                          2. Recycle Reuse Reduce 2:46    Heidi Howe    Give a Hootenanny!

                          3. reduce, reuse, recycle    3:35    The Junkman (Donald Knaack)    Junk Music 2

                          4. The 3 R’s   2:54    Jack Johnson    Sing-A-Longs & Lullabies For The Film Curious George

                          5. Glorious     5:19    MaMuse    All The Way

                          6. Weave Me the Sunshine           4:28    Peter, Paul And Mary    The Very Best of Peter, Paul and Mary

                          7. Mother Nature’s Son       2:48    The Beatles    The Beatles (White Album

                          8. Beautiful Day       4:08    U2    All That You Can’t Leave Behind