You expect it from Jeremy Rifkin. He calls himself a “time rebel,” at war with modernity, and denounces “our flogligate way of life.” He writes, “We boast that we are the first consumer society in history and even tout a consumer movement, apparently unaware of the irony implicit in the word. The term ‘consumer’ dates back to the fourteenth century and, in both its English and French form, has meant ‘to devour,’ ‘to lay waste,’ ‘to destroy,’ and ‘to exhaust.’” When Jerey Rifkin tells shoppers, “Remember, if it’s disposable and convenient, it probably contributes to the greenhouse effect,” you can figure he has more on his mind than the atmospheric impact of Bic razors.
But what about Thrifty drugstores? These no-so-green purveyors of bubble-wrapped jars of makeup, single-serving candy bars, disposable diapers, and lead-acid batteries are handing our green-and-white leaflets (printed on recycled paper) that urge shoppers to “Reduce-Reuse-Recycle.” The environmentalist mantra has gone commercial.
It has also gone political. And translated into policial language, Thrifty’s homily becomes an economic agenda that extends cetnral planning backwards from the trash can to the kitchen shelf to the supermarket to the wholesaler to the manufacturer. Under the guese of managing our solid waste, we are adopting bit by bit, a national materials policy based on the ideal of soncuming no materials at all.
As the Source Reduction Council of the very-establishment Coalition of Northeastern Governors puts it, “the basic objective…is to eliminate, to the maximum extent possible, packaging as a waste product.” CONEG’s “preferred packaging guide-lines” put “no packaging” at the top, followed by “minimal packaging,” “returnable, reusable, refillable,” and “recycle content, recyclable.”
David Morris, director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a radical but widely cited prorecycling group, writes, “We must keep our eyes on the prize: a drastic reduction in our per capita consumption of materials.
The agenda enunciated by Morris and the CONEG Reduction Council is founded not merely on anticonsumption zealotry (with a dollop of corporate opportunism thrown in). It is based on widely held misconceptions about Americans and their garbage. The United States does have some real solid waste problems, but they are amenable to fairly simple solutions that require less, not more, government planning.
Perhaps it all started with Mobro, the Islip, Long Island, garbage barge. Back in 1987 the barge wandered from port to port, searching for some place that would accept the garbage it carried. After six states and three countries rejected its load, Mobro returned to New York. A Brooklyn incinerator burned the trash, and the waste ash went home to a landfill in Islip.
The Northeastern landfill shortage became a national story. Newspapers and TV shows told tales of the nation’s impending garbage crisis. Landfills were closing. Waste was mounting. Soon every city in the land would have a garbage-filled barge roaming the seas.
The reports scared people. Politicians who had been content to leave garbage management to specialists decided something had to be done. So they passed laws. In the early ‘80s, only 140 American cities had curbside recycling programs. Today, however, more than 2,700 communities nationwide pick up residents’ cans, bottles, and newspapers for recycling. In most of these places, recycling is mandatory for at least some residents.
More important, 28 states enacted recycling or waste-reduction quotas—Florida, for instance, will require 30-percent recycling by 1994, a demand that has solid-waste managers there in a near panic. Another five states have set nonmandatory goals. (The Environmental Protection Agency recommends a 25-percent diversion of the solid-waste stream by 1992, 50 percent by 1997.) Once enacted, these increasingly common laws drive all solid-waste management decisions in their states. They shift the policy emphasis from safe and efficient waste disposal to reducing consumption.
Although its targets are only recommendations, the EPA has played a major role in that shift. In 1989 the agency issued a report, The Solid Waste Dilemma: An Agenda for Action, in which it identified four means of managing solid waste: 1) source reduction; 2) recycling; 3) incineration; and 4) landfilling. These are, in one form or another, the options people have had since the Stone Age. But the EPA didn’t just list the options. It ranked them. It created a waste-management hierarchy, with source reduction at the pinnacle, flanked by reuse and recycling. Incinerators and landfills were left groveling in the dust, grateful that they were allowed to exist at all. Although it acknowledged that sound solid-waste management would involve all four options, the EPA made it clear that in all situations source reduction and recycling are preferable to burning or burying trash. “Reduce-Reuse-Recycle” became the national standard.
The EPA hierarchy diverts government policy from “integrated waste management,” the technocratic way of mixing the four options in whichever combination best fits local needs. Instead, it has prompted—and given political support to—a mania for aggressive recycling and source-reduction efforts, regardless of cost, overall resource use, or local conditions. The EPA has lent respectability, even urgency, to calls like David Morris’s to “demand an immediate halt to policies that promote materials destruction. That would include not only stopping incinerators, but ending the promotion of degradable plastics whose destination is not the recycler but the landfill.’’
In the wake of the EPA’s report, members of Congress have Proposed amendments to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and Solid Waste Disposal Act (SWDA) that would, among other things:
- Require that nonrecyclable materials be biodegradable and prohibit, after five years, any material that is neither biodegradable nor recyclable.
- Create a National Packaging Institute to establish national Packaging standards.
- Mandate a return deposit on plastic and glass containers.
- Ban in interstate commerce any plastic container that isn’t marked with a code indicating its composition to recyclers.
RCRA, better known for its hazardous waste provisions, is up for reauthorization this year, so Congress will soon be seriously considering amendments. (See “A Hazardous Waste,” November 1989.) So far, however, most of the action to move the country toward a national materials policy has occurred on a piecemeal basis, at the state level.