Recycling: from wartime campaigns to secular religions

As John Tierney recently wrote in the NY Times, today recycling is being “promoted as a goal in and of itself”–turning away from traditional grounding in environmental and financial concerns. No local activists involved with solid waste are known to have career experience in process management, industry economics, mechanical engineering or manufacturing. While goals might sound civic-minded, backgrounds do not suggest skills to develop policies for waste handling.

Recycling generations: Municipal recycling emerged in the 1940s with “paper drives” to support World War II efforts, collecting telephone books and newspapers. Those could often be converted into low-strength containers and excelsior, or “wood wool”–with financial gains realized mainly through unpaid, volunteer labor.

A wider scope of efforts took off in the 1960s–involving multiple materials and paid curbside pickup. While they made inspiring news copy, within a few years financial and environmental inventories showed efforts to be counterproductive. More petroleum and other nonrenewable resources were being consumed than saved.

Third-generation efforts, taking off in the 1990s, tended to evade criticism. Sponsors announced internal rather than external goals: simply aiming to divert tonnages in waste streams rather than trying to justify programs through either environmental or financial benefits. Somewhat like bake sales: “just because.”

Modern times: So-called “single-stream”–a recycling poster-child for the past several years–involves less effort for households and for collection crews. Otherwise, it has become a financial and environmental disaster. Once-plentiful streams of old newspapers and telephone books are largely gone, thanks to an Internet age when few people want information on paper.

Mixing rather than separating materials causes everything to be smeared with food waste, mashed and broken. Retrieving anything useful from the rubble takes more effort and yields materials that are either ruined by soilage, including paper, or that need expensive washing, including plastics and metals. Net returns from recycled materials have plummeted. However, some ordinary recycling has survived.

Take leaves–for example–or rather, “rake leaves.” That’s what we’ve been doing for over 40 years. A small plot in back holds most of a year’s leaf-fall. By the next year, rain has packed it into a dense layer, and we can add another year’s harvest. After about 20 years, there was enough well-digested leaf compost to start enriching gardens and flowerbeds.

Besides providing fall exercise, the habits save town labor and fuel. They slow, but they do not eliminate, air pollution. Decomposing leaves release some methane, a greenhouse gas. Commercial composters have started trapping methane and using it to generate electricity. Burning leaves, as people used to do, would release large amounts of carbon dioxide and pollute the air with smoke, including partly burned compounds.

We, the town and the state all fail to inventory recycling and publish results on environmental life cycles and overall finances. While we are aware of general directions in which some efforts are leading, we know little about amounts or balances.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, October 6, 2015

John Tierney, The reign of recycling, New York Times, October 4, 2015

Peter Thorsheim, Waste into Weapons: Recycling in Britain during the Second World War, Cambridge University Press, 2015

Craig Bolon, Recycling makes more progress without trash metering, Brookline Beacon, April 11, 2014

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