Nearly 25 years ago, The New York Times Magazine’s John Tierney wrote an essay, “Recycling Is Garbage,” that, you may not be surprised to hear, set a record for the volume of hate mail the magazine received. Tierney argued that recycling was one of the most wasteful things Americans could do. “Rinsing out tuna cans and tying up newspapers may make you feel virtuous, but it’s a waste of time and money, a waste of human and natural resources,” he said. “Americans have embraced recycling as a transcendental experience, an act of moral redemption. We’re not just reusing our garbage; we’re performing a rite of atonement for the sin of excess.”
Tierney was not dispassionate – he was intentionally provocative – but he was arguing from facts, dispute them as one might. Five years ago, in a Times opinion piece, “The Reign of Recycling,” he revisited his views and said, “While it’s true that the recycling message has reached more people than ever, when it comes to the bottom line, both economically and environmentally, not much has changed at all.”
This prompted one earnest commenter to respond: “I am offended by (Tierney’s) portrayal of recycling as a religious act. I am trying to do the thing which is best for my community, my world and the future. I don’t recycle because I am holier than thou, I recycle because I have been told it is good for the environment. When that message changes, I will change.”
Has that message changed? The right answer seems to be that it keeps evolving away from the commenter and toward Tierney. On Friday, NPR broadcast a report from an investigation conducted jointly with the PBS series Frontline: “How Big Oil Misled The Public Into Believing Plastic Would Be Recycled.” It opens with Laura Leebrick, a manager at an Oregon recycling company where all the plastic that has been carefully sorted by residents of cities and towns with recycling policies and transported is not heading to China, which used to buy our discarded plastics until about two years ago, but right back to where it used to go, before Tierney’s first article: landfills.
That felt like a betrayal of public trust, Leebrick says. But the public didn’t want to hear it: “I remember the first meeting where I actually told a city council that it was costing more to recycle than it was to dispose of the same material as garbage and it was like heresy had been spoken in the room: You’re lying. This is gold. We take the time to clean it, take the labels off, separate it and put it here. It’s gold. This is valuable.”
But, says NPR investigative reporter Laura Sullivan, “It’s not valuable, and it never has been. And what’s more, the makers of plastic – the nation’s largest oil and gas companies – have known this all along, even as they spent millions of dollars telling the American public the opposite.”
The industry knew that most plastic couldn’t be recycled but if enough consumers and local politicians were willing to believe it could, and that they were involved in a green and virtuous activity, the makers of plastics could make and sell more of it. Meanwhile, for decades, less than 10% of plastic goods have ever been recycled, Sullivan reports.
“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” asked Johnny Rotten at the conclusion of the Sex Pistols’ only U.S. tour, in 1978. It is a question we all should be asking now about recycling. We meant to do good and to be good – but when it comes to public policy, that’s still not good enough.