24 January 2007

Mystery Guest: For Recycling

Mystery Guest
The Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
18 January 2007

As someone engaged in the "mindless preening" The Objectivist mentions in his January 10, 2007 column, I would like to respond to his pro-landfill/anti-recycling comments. Not only are his claims way off base in most cases, but he also fails to mention a central component of the SUNY Fredonia environmental petition: a request to reduce the campus's greenhouse gas emissions. While The Objectivist apparently does not think that global warming is a serious issue, more than 1,200 people on our campus do. But let us focus on the matters he does raise.

According to The Objectivist, landfills are "environmentally safe." In fact, he claims, "even the old landfills aren't dangerous." If landfills are so safe, I wonder why more than twenty-one New York State landfills and dumps appear on the EPA's national priority clean-up (superfund) site list. Even if we dismiss these landfills on the grounds that many of them were constructed before the Resource Conservation Recovery Act's more stringent 1991 "Subtitle D" guidelines, there is startling evidence that even the best modern landfills are not safe.

According to a March 2006 report by Drs. G. Fred Lee and Anne Jones-Lee, the flawed technology and improper monitoring of most municipal landfills result in groundwater pollution. Basically, they find that leachate (garbage juice) can leak into surrounding groundwater both through flaws or deteriorations in the plastic and clay liners at the bottom of landfills and through the top coverings. In addition to groundwater pollution, Lee and Jones-Lee note that landfills pose risks to our health due to the release of gases that "are known to contain carcinogens and other chemicals" (32) and disease spread by vermin attracted to garbage. But whom should we believe about the safety and health of landfills? Environmental consultants with advanced degrees in Public Health and Environmental Engineering who have evaluated landfills in more than twenty-three states and eight countries, or Jerry Taylor of the Cato Institute, who made his claims about landfills fifteen years ago?

For the sake of argument, let's assume that the one-tenth-of-an-inch-thick plastic landfill liner doesn't come into contact with household chemicals such as shoe polish, vinegar, or mothballs that might cause it to crack. Let's pretend that testing 100 to 200 of the 75,000 possible chemicals in a landfill is enough to ensure that toxic substances don't enter our air or groundwater. (Lee and Jones-Lee 42). We still have the issue of landfill space. The Objectivist assures us that "there's no shortage of landfill space." Even if we ignore pervasive claims that landfill space--especially in urban areas--is limited, we still must contend with fact that most Americans don't want landfills near them. As reported in the December 1, 2006 issue of Waste Age, a trade publication for people in the waste industry, Boston's Saint Consulting Group found that 87 percent of Americans opposed the prospect of landfill development in their neighborhood. I wonder where The Objectivist thinks his proposed 1936 square miles of landfill would go.

Because he is a great fan of landfills, it is not surprising that The Objectivist claims that recycling is inefficient and "not clearly environmentally friendly." As evidence, he cites John Tierney's 1996 article about the inefficiencies of New York City's recycling program. Had he consulted any recent information on the city's recycling program, he would have found that recycling has already become cost effective and will potentially save the city millions of dollars. In 2003, the city did curtail some of its recycling collection in an effort to save money. It turns out that these $40 million cuts to the recycling program did not reduce the costs of waste disposal. Between the dramatic increase in the cost of exporting garbage to out-of-state landfills (almost 50 percent in a three-year period alone) and a significant decrease in the cost of recycling, the city's recycling program had become economically sound. On March 3, 2004, New York City Comptroller William Thompson, Jr. announced a twenty-year full-scale recycling commitment, noting that it was "the right decision for the environment, for the economy and for the City's budget."

Recycling makes both economic and environmental sense. By reducing our extraction and use of virgin materials, recycling saves energy, reduces pollution, and lessens greenhouse gas emissions. According to a 1998 EPA pamphlet on recycling (5306W), manufacturing and recycling one ton of recycled office paper reduces total energy consumption by 43 percent, net greenhouse gas emissions by 70 percent, and hazardous air pollutant emissions by 90 percent (8). More recently the National Recycling Coalition has reported that recycling aluminum uses 95 percent less energy than creating it from bauxite ore. The organization has also found that making "recycled steel saves 60%, recycled newspaper 40%, recycled plastics 70%, and recycled glass 40%." Recycling plastic in particular can lessen our oil needs. According to the University of Colorado at Boulder's March 2006 recycling bulletin, more than 1.5 billion barrels of oil are used each year just to produce plastic water bottles. Recycling also creates good American jobs. A 2001 report by R.W. Beck, Inc. found that the recycling and reuse industries employ 1.1 million people with an annual payroll of $37 billion while grossing more than $236 billion in annual revenues.

If we focus only recycling, we miss the bigger environmental picture. Many of us on SUNY Fredonia's campus would like to see more conservation, the preservation of our green spaces, and composting of our food wastes--a practice that could potentially benefit both our students and local farmers. These practices can potentially save the campus a lot of money. According to their UB Green web site, the University of Buffalo saves more than $9 million annually on energy conservation alone. Even if SUNY Fredonia saved a fraction of this amount, it still presents an economic argument for making environmentally sound changes.

The Objectivist's arguments just don't make sense. Anyone who has ever visited a junkyard knows that we do recycle cars, and this practice hasn't reduced the number of cars in the U.S. In fact, according to the Bureau of Transportation, the total number of registered vehicles in the U.S. has more than tripled between 1960 and 2004. But don't allow my comments to be the final word either. Check out the facts for yourself.


The Constructivist said...

Hey, Mystery Guest, nice job. The recycling/greenhouse gas picture is much better focused in your piece than O's, IMHO. BTW, have you seen these two pieces by Michael Klare on the temptation to turn away from free market principles by conservatives fearful of life after "peak oil"?

The Constructivist said...

MG, one point I was trying to make by emphasizing Klare's analysis of the state/market conflict when it comes to oil is to raise the question of the potential value of trying to peel libertarian and other free-market ("economic") conservatives away from the Republican Party. It's great to diss Cato on environmental issues, but they have done some good work on civil liberties under Bush, for instance. This piece on domestic militarization shows that people like Angela Davis and the editors of ColorLines might be able to make a situational alliance under certain circumstances. My challenges to O in our Clinton/Bush comments--which O has been ducking--is another example of potential value in some things Cato does.

Mark Base said...

Come & learn how recycling is done in Sweden!

Recycling in Sweden

The Objectivist said...

Dear C:
I agree that CATO has done great work in challenging the attack on civil liberties from the Bush administration. This is off point, but I have to ask whether you are ashamed of Hilary Clinton, Barak Obama, et at. (except Feingold).

* They took a pass on voting against the war because of the polls. Now to insulate themselves from attack, hide behind a meaningless resolution.

* Are as cowardly as one can get about challenging the Bush administration's infringement on Constitutional rights on search and imprisonment conditions.

You might dislike the Bush camp even more, but my question to you is whether you are ashamed of the Congressional left.