Idiocracy in the New York Times: John Tierney on recycling

idiocracy towers
Screen capture Idiocracy garbage towers

We used to write a lot about New York Times op-ed columnist John Tierney; a professional contrarian and what I called an "everything denier", I found his writing to be a matter of real concern, as he tried to debunk every issue we supported. I wrote " his misinformation will be quoted back to us in comments every time we write about any of these subjects for the next two years, as the word from The authoritative New York Times."

Now he is at it again, recycling his 1996 story Recycling is Garbage as The Reign of Recycling. he writes:

Recycling has been relentlessly promoted as a goal in and of itself: an unalloyed public good and private virtue that is indoctrinated in students from kindergarten through college. As a result, otherwise well-informed and educated people have no idea of the relative costs and benefits.

Tierney then goes through a couple of pretty specious arguments against recycling; that it reduces employment for miners and loggers (really!) ; that it doesn't pay for itself (we are in a commodities recession, prices go up and down); the food composting smells bad; that America is a big place and there is no shortage of big holes to fill with garbage. I won't go into these in detail; our friends at Grist do a great job of deconstructing them point by point.

Additionally Adam Minter, author of Junkyard Planet (my review here) and a guy who knows how to talk trash, and who authoritatively says (unlike Tierney) that the worst recycling is still better than the best mining, calls the article "sloppy, deceptive, and lacking any kind of context for a reader not familiar with the recycling industry."

So if Tierney thinks recycling is so useless and awful, why are we doing it? He writes:

Special-interest politics is one reason — pressure from green groups — but it’s also because recycling intuitively appeals to many voters: It makes people feel virtuous, especially affluent people who feel guilty about their enormous environmental footprint. It is less an ethical activity than a religious ritual, like the ones performed by Catholics to obtain indulgences for their sins.

ad for recyclingIt's like a human saying "I want to be a slug"- downcycling to a lower level./Promo image

Now there is a grain of truth in this. Recycling does make people feel good. But Tierney, corporate free market shill that he is, gets the reasons wrong. It's not the green groups promoting it; it's corporate America. As I go on about every America Recycles Day, recycling is part of a big corporate plot to make us accept disposable products and shift the cost of dealing with them from the producer to the consumer and taxpayer. So they run ads telling us that our water bottles want to be a bench. They convince us that it is OK to throw away 4.2 billion water bottles every year because really, it will be reincarnated into something else, so why should we use a refillable one? That it's OK to throw out a beer can because it will turn into a Ford F150 pickup instead of buying it in those dirty refillable bottles.

But that schpiel isn't working right now, with China not buying as much of our recycling, commodity prices well below the cost of picking up and processing it, with unwanted recycled materials piling up in warehouses and municipalities as well as taxpayers grumbling about recycling cost, what better solution could a good corporate shill like Tierney come up with?

Cities have been burying garbage for thousands of years, and it’s still the easiest and cheapest solution for trash. The recycling movement is floundering, and its survival depends on continual subsidies, sermons and policing. How can you build a sustainable city with a strategy that can’t even sustain itself?

solid waste© Environmental leader

No, people have been reusing and refilling and recycling for thousands of years; dumping stuff in holes is the new thing, a function of a culture of disposability. Fifty years ago the amount of trash buried per person was a fraction of what it is today; If I could find a graph that went back a hundred years it would be starting at close to zero. The answer to the problem is producer responsibility, deposits and returns on everything, stopping waste at the source, not dumping it into holes in the ground.


But then this is John Tierney we are talking about, so I shouldn't be surprised. But I do want to thank him for bringing back memories of trashing Tierney; it was almost a regular feature in TreeHugger, debunking the debunker and his "putting ideas in science to the test." Such good times.

Tags: Newspapers | Recycled Consumer Goods | Recycling


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