Recycling Under Attack!

In response to John Tierney’s opinion article published in the New York Times on Sunday October 3, many organizations and individuals have released rebuttals. NYSAR3 is compiling links to several of the rebuttals for your use and reference. If you would us to include your rebuttal, please send it to for consideration.


Response Letters to the Editor:

To the Editor: Re “The Reign of Recycling” (Sunday Review, Oct. 4):

John Tierney’s article fails to understand the psychology of recycling. The habit of recycling encourages people to consider their personal impact on the environment, and, yes, it makes people feel good about themselves. Decades of research in psychology has shown that recycling behavior has positive spillovers; it makes people more likely to help the environment in many other important ways.


A garbage tax (on trash that goes to the landfill) will likely do the exact opposite. Behavioral research has taught us that giving people the option to “buy out” of their environmental responsibility undermines their personal motivation to help.


Long-term environmental problems call for long-term changes in human behavior. Advising people to stuff their garbage deep inside the earth because that’s what we have always done is exactly the type of thinking that got us here in the first place. Just because societies had open sewage systems for over a thousand years doesn’t mean it is a good idea. Whatever the inefficiencies of the recycling process may be, misinforming people that recycling is a waste of time is not going to help the environment.



Princeton, N.J.

The writer is a researcher, lecturer and social psychologist at Princeton University who directs the Social and Environmental Decision-Making Lab.







It might interest you all to know that John Tierney interviewed me in two lengthy phone calls for his article, but chose to not use anything I had to say. I sent him the 25 year history of recycling market prices in the Puget Sound region showing that price cycles are normal and what goes down eventually comes back up. I also sent him a couple of my peer-reviewed articles on the environmental benefits of recycling vs. disposal, but he seemed to be intent on doing another negative article like the one he did many years ago. I was cordial and helpful in the phone conversations and in answering follow-on questions sent from him via email. 


How naïve of me to think that he was actually listening and hearing! A person blinded by ideology cannot see, hear or smell the science behind our estimates of environmental impacts from resource extraction and manufacturing of products, including fuels, and services that eventually yield the discards we generate from our homes, business, vehicles and multitudinous purchases of stuff. John Tierney’s editor & fact checker, Kevin McCarthy,  talked with me several times and we both agreed that the article took an extremely critical, and I would say one-sided view, and that the article would provoke lots of online comments and letters to the editor. That’s not a bad thing except that none of those responses get the play that the Tierney article gets, so it’s one-sided journalism that gets the full circulation across the nation. 


It’s obvious that one can do recycling in an environmentally and economically less beneficial way – inefficient collection, bad sorting, rinse the containers 10 times with hot water, and so on. But that’s not even close to the norm and average characteristics and behavior for recycling. 


Furthermore, recycling market prices don’t reflect externalized public health and environmental costs, and the big waste handling companies’ bottom lines don’t either. So disposal begets more profits than recycling or composting do. Hence the big waste handling companies can’t aggressively push waste diversion from burying and burning and maximize short run profits at the same time. Until we get a hefty carbon tax as well as hefty taxes for releases of other pollutants – small cancer causing particulates, cancer and morbidity causing metals and other chemical releases, and internalize costs to future humans, other species and ecosystems of land use, water use and ocean disposal of non-degradable plastics, it will be the case that in many places recycling costs a lot more than disposal. The result – focus on the narrow financial bottom line,  now and kill the planet’s bottom line (i.e., ecosystems sustainability, other species survival and eventually survival of  most of  our own human species with the exception of the few at the top) now and in the future. 


I wish I could be more optimistic about good behavior from the human species overcoming the negative impacts of the current systems for developing market prices and costs that drive behavior of most of us. Looking around it sure is hard to see behavior that is substantially different than behavior of the big waste handling companies. Busy, busy, busy lives drive us all to minimize our costs of living rather than maximize the well-being for current and future generations of all species that share our planet. “Pay now or pay later. You don’t miss your water until your well runs dry”!!!!!!


But like most of you on these lists I keep on truckin’ anyway, for what else is there to do. 


Jeffrey Morris, Ph.D. - Economics

Sound Resource Management Group




To the Editor: While John Tierney is correct is describing the current economic plight of the recycling industry, he doesn’t mention how the recycling industry — and the solid waste industry of which it is a part — is changing.


Driven by technology and economics, parts of the country are moving away from the current recycling model. Optical sorting, computerized scanning and enhanced mechanical devices have made such developments possible. Montgomery, Ala., established a new system in which residents no longer sort their trash. Instead, the material goes to a sorting facility, where organics are separated from inorganics, and metals, paper, glass and plastic are sorted. The plan is for the organics go to an anaerobic digester; only the residue from the process will be landfilled.


In California, localities such as San Jose are experimenting with a system in which “wet trash” (organics) are placed in one bin, and “dry trash” (everything else) in another bin. The dry portion is mechanically and optically sorted for recyclables of value, and the organic fraction is diverted to an anaerobic digester and used for energy.


While neither of these approaches achieves zero waste, 60 to 70 percent of the stream is being repurposed.



Westport, Conn.

The writer is president of Governmental Advisory Associates.