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Recycling Helps, but It’s Not All You Can Do for the Environment


LIKE most households, we recycle pre1y religiously. It’s easy, though, because our town in suburban New York allows us to throw pre1y much everything into one bin, and it gets picked up at the curb.

Recycling has become so automa?c that if we’re out and there’s no place to recycle that soda can or bo1le, it feels slightly illicit to just drop it in the trash. It’s like li1ering. You just don’t do it.

Lately, however, I started wondering — are we really doing anything with all this recycling besides feeling be1er about the stuff we buy?

A lone recycling bin alongside trash cans on a street in Houston, which recycles only about
A lone recycling bin alongside trash cans on a street in Houston, which
recycles only about 3 percent of its trash.

Much of the discussion has focused on the economic impact. That issue has been ba1ed back and forth with mixed results, although most experts now agree that ci?es have become more experienced and more effec?ve — and therefore made it more cost-efficient — to recycle most products rather than dump them in landfills.

I’m more curious about what impact it has on other environmental behavior. And when I started looking at that more closely, I discovered that there’s an intense debate going on about this issue.

Recycling “is good civic behavior,” said Samantha MacBride, an assistant professor of public affairs at Baruch College, City University of New York, but it’s oversold as a panacea to a whole host of environmental ills, from overflowing landfills to global warming. “I wouldn’t say that people who do recycling feel they’ve done everything they can by par?cipa?ng, but they think there’s a lot more being achieved than there actually is,” she said. Na?onally, said Professor MacBride, who is the author of “Recycling Reconsidered” (MIT Press, 2011), recycling prevents only about one-third of all trash from ending up in landfills.

Partly, she said, that is because people are not recycling everything they can. Partly it’s because the recycling model in most municipali?es of picking up a bin with all the recyclables mixed together, especially the plas?cs, doesn’t work well.

“There’s a huge range of plas?c materials and hundreds of different resins,” Professor MacBride said. “We need markets and processes to route them back into produc?on and for the most part, those processes don’t exist.”

So some plas?cs are sent in bales to China and developing countries, and some are disposed of in landfills.

The emphasis, she said, has to be much more on regula?ng and recycling waste from manufacturers rather than consumer waste.

The other problem is that while “recycling is a wonderful thing to do if we’re comparing it to throwing stuff away, it has become a reward for consump?on,” said Michael Maniates, a professor of environmental science at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania.

Gernot Wagner, an economist with the Environmental Defense Fund and author of “But Will the Planet No?ce: How Smart Economics Can Save the World,” (Hill and Wang, 2011), agrees. “There’s a well-documented phenomenon known as single-ac?on bias, where people do one thing and move on,” he said. “People don’t explicitly think, ‘I’ve recycled a cup and solved global warming,’ but rather once they’ve done an ac?on like recycling, they feel consciously or subconsciously like they’ve done their part.”

Or as the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, which is affiliated with the Earth Ins?tute at Columbia University, says on its Web site: “Although recycling is important, it should be but one ac?vity in a series of behavior changes aimed at reducing climate change. Switching to wind or other renewable energies, consuming less meat, conserving daily energy use and ea?ng locally grown food are other effec?ve ways to mi?gate climate change, to name but a few. However, if individuals and ins?tu?ons par?cipate in recycling programs, they may be prone to the single- ac?on bias and feel like they are already doing enough to protect the environment.”

Hold on there, said Allen Hershkowitz, senior scien?st and director of the solid waste project at the environmental organiza?on the Natural Resources Defense Council. “I’ve never dealt with a person or company who said, ‘We recycle so we don’t have to do anything else.’ It’s, ‘We recycle, what else can we do?’ ”

In his role as an adviser to the Na?onal Hockey League, Major League Baseball and the Na?onal Basketball Associa?on, among others, he said he found that recycling was “an entry ac?vity that leads to other ac?vi?es such as buying recycled, energy effec?veness and fan educa?on.”

Juliet Schor, a professor of sociology at Boston College, said that a number of European studies had demonstrated that people who bought green products or did some sort of similar “conscious consumerism” didn’t stop there, but con?nued on with other types of environmental ac?vism.

A study conducted by Professor Schor and a graduate student, Margaret Willis, and published recently in The Annals of the American Academy of Poli?cal and Social Science, called “Does Changing Light Bulbs Lead to Changing the World? Poli?cal Ac?on and the Conscious Consumer” looked at the concern that “individual ac?on subs?tutes or ‘crowds out’ civic and collec?ve ac?on.”

Part of the study included 2,271 survey responses from people iden?fied as being “conscious consumers” through an ecologically oriented nonprofit organiza?on the Center for a New American dream. These respondents, largely white, female and highly educated, were asked ques?ons like how ogen (ranging from “never” to “very consistently”) they engaged in such ac?vi?es as choosing to drive less, contac?ng government representa?ves to express an opinion and buying local or green goods.

While the study didn’t look at recycling in par?cular, it found that those who chose to do individual green ac?ons were also more involved in other broader poli?cal ac?vism.

But Professor Schor said she was troubled that recycling “is what they’re teaching kids in school is going to save the world.”

And that was the point Professor MacBride wanted to emphasize.

“We don’t want to hear the bad side of recycling,” Professor MacBride said. “That’s a child’s view of the world. It’s ?me to grow up.”

So what can we do? Remember that there’s two other Rs — reduce and reuse — that are far too ogen ignored.

“As it has turned out ‘reuse’ is something that our kids learn in school as part of the ‘three Rs,’” Professor Maniates said. “But it has no resonance or meaning in mainstream or popular environmental poli?cs and living. I brought my hangers to the dry cleaner and said, ‘Maybe you can reuse these’ and they said, ‘Sure, we’ll recycle them.’ ”

David N. Pellow, a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, offered a similar perspec?ve. “I would urge people to buy fewer things, buy higher quality, fix things when they’re broken. I would encourage people to recycle as a last stage ager they’ve done all these other things.”

And remember not to buy into single-ac?on bias. As Mr. Hershkowitz said: “We are dealing with a gigan?c problem and there is no one large undertaking that any individual or business or country can do to solve our ecological problems. It will take billions of people making highly intelligent ecological choices.”