MassRecycle's Response to the John Tierney New York Times Article

October 9th, 2015

On October 3rd, 2015, the New York Times ran an article by John Tierney, a follow-up of sorts to his article from 1996 also dismissive of recycling. In the article, he attempts to highlight the current status of the recycling industry, the stagnant recycling rate nationally and a smattering of statements from various sources as indicators that recycling is not worthwhile. He even comes to the conclusion that the most economic and environmentally beneficial approach would be to continue to consume and landfill all of our waste. MassRecycle is disappointed that the New York Times would run this misleading article.

Tierney claims that recycling was initially driven by a scare campaign that we face a landfill shortage in the US and that the “great landfill shortage has not arrived”. In Massachusetts, it clearly has. Landfills are closing, and based on current State data, we will be forced to export at least 2 million tons of trash annually by 2020.1 There is a major environmental footprint to exporting trash that Tierney does not even mention because he prefers to remain oblivious to proven solid waste management strategies.

He also attempts to use the guise of a comprehensive life cycle analysis to claim that recycling actually has a larger carbon footprint than landfilling. For example, he points to washing bottles prior to recycling as driving the carbon footprint of bottle recycling higher than just trashing those bottles. But he fails to consider the significant manufacturing costs and impact of gathering raw materials into that very same analysis.

Instead, Tierney, in his flippant pro-consumption message, mentions the industries that manufacture and gather raw materials as an attempt to pull at heart strings for the loss of jobs in those industries. What he fails to mention is that recycling creates jobs for those very same segments of the population, and those jobs are mostly local, supporting our own domestic economy. In fact, recycling has been shown to create 10 times more jobs than landfilling, and in Massachusetts, the recycling industry supports over 2,000 businesses and 14,000 jobs.2

The only thing that Tierney gets right in the article, and not for the right reasons, is that “well-informed and educated people have no idea of the relative costs and benefits” of recycling. It is time to re-engage the general public, cut the complex messages, and help them understand the true cost benefits of recycling to push recycling forward!

1MassDEP, Massachusetts 2010-2020 Solid Waste Master Plan. April 2013, from http://www.mass.gov/eea/docs/dep/recycle/priorities/swmp13f.pdf.

2Skillworks, Recycling and Jobs in Massachusetts: A Study of Current and Future Workforce Needs. March 2012, from http://www.skill-works.org/documents/SW_RecyclingReport3-2012_online.pdf.