By Donella Meadows
–September 24, 1987–
Most everyone involved in the Great National Garbage Problem would agree on the following propositions:
- Landfills are better (and more expensive) than open dumps; they reduce smell, rats, and pollution of air and surface water. But landfills take up space and pollute groundwater.
- Mass-burn incinerators are better (and much more expensive) than landfills; they take less land and they recover some of the energy from the trash in electricity. But incinerators generate air pollution and toxic ash.
- Recycling is better (and much less expensive) than incineration; it reclaims nearly all the energy and the materials in trash, it reduces pollution not only at the dump but at the point of manufacture, it postpones the depletion of mines and wells, and it creates local jobs.
In spite of these rankings, the nation is rushing not to recycling, but to incinerators. There are more than 70 trash incinerators now operating in the cities and towns of the United States. At least that many more are under construction or in advanced stages of planning. The industry projects that $35 billion will be spent to construct municipal incinerators over the next ten years.
Why incinerators? Why not recycling?
One reason is the enticing profitability of the incinerator industry. Tax-free municipal bonds provide the money to build the plants. Taxpayers pay operating costs through tipping fees. Towns arrange for hauling, supply the landfills to receive the ash, and even sign put-or-pay contracts to guarantee a given amount of garbage. And since the 1978 Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act, utilities must buy the electricity generated at a fixed price.
Capital guaranteed, input guaranteed, market for output guaranteed. Building an incinerator must be one of the least risky, most subsidized business ventures in America.
Profit is one reason for the incineration boom, but another reason, perhaps the most important, is the set of myths that stand in the way of recycling. Listen to any public discussion of the garbage problem, read any of the hundreds of current articles, and you hear the myths.
They are the statements supported by no evidence and preceded by “of course”, as in “Of course people will never be willing to separate their garbage.”
They are the assertions that everyone has heard but no one has personally checked out, as in “There’s just no market for recycled materials.”
They are the demagogic, thought-stopping slogans that have no meaning when you look at them closely, as in, “Let the market take care of the problem. Keep Big Brother out of our garbage!”
The best way to recognize a myth is to put yourself into a world in which it’s not believed. Go to Japan or Europe, for instance, where all our recycling myths are being disproved. Or pick up a copy of Resource Recycling.
Resource Recycling is the journal of the healthy, rising American recycling movement. Paging through a copy is a cheery, myth-shattering experience.
The ads catch your eye first:
“Wanted. Used glass containers! Glass is more valuable than ever.” (Owens-Illinois, Toledo Ohio.)
“The CD3000 Can Densor. For recyclers determined to make money the easy way.” (CP Manufacturers, National City California.)
“A race against time. Landfills closing. We’ll run your MRF (Material Recovery Facility) from start to finish.” (New England CRInc, Billerica, Massachusetts.)
“We’re proving how beguilingly attractive recycled papers have become. Paper this good-looking at prices this attractive will leave you spellbound!” (Prairie Paper, Lincoln, Nebraska.)
Then there are the articles, on tire recycling, plastic recycling, composting, and most interesting of all, on successful municipal recycling programs.
For instance, 80% of the residents of Wellesley, Massachusetts, voluntarily separate their trash and drive it to the Municipal Recycling and Disposal Facility. The facility is at the site of a closed-down incinerator, now a park. There are lawns and picnic tables. Local politicians seek votes there; Girl Scouts sell cookies. There are containers for aluminum cans, glass, metals, newspapers, and a popular corner for Reusable Items, where books, games, toys, appliances, and furniture can be passed on to neighbors or picked up by Goodwill Industries. Yard wastes are composted, firewood is cut up and given to residents.
The facility employs a staff of seven, and it makes $20 per ton on material sales, while avoiding $40 per ton in hauling and tipping fees for the alternative disposal system, a landfill 15 miles away.
Any issue of Resource Recycling makes me think that the main thing in the way of large-scale recycling in this country is a collective failure of imagination. We need to start a new set of myths, which stimulate our creativity, and which might be closer to truths. For instance:
Give us a clear choice between being taxed $40 a ton for unseparated garbage or earning $20 a ton from separated garbage, between having an incinerator in our neighborhood or a recycling station, and see how willing we are to separate our garbage.
Charge a fair disposal fee at the point of manufacture of unnecessary packaging, unreturnable bottles, unrecyclable plastics, and hazardous chemicals, and watch how the volume of garbage goes down.
Guarantee American businesses a cheap, dependable source of recycled materials and notice how many ingenious uses will be found for them.
Get Big Brother out of the incinerator industry, or made equal subsidies available to recyclers, and watch a truly competitive market discover the lower cost, the greater safety, the savings in materials and energy, the decreased pollution, the ultimate wisdom of recycling.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1987