TCS Daily

Recycle This!

By Craig Winneker - April 4, 2003 12:00 AM

Every journalist's dream is to win the Pulitzer Prize and I think there's one to be had for proving that recycling is a sham. I just know that all of this compulsive separating of refuse is a waste of time.

Still, like a lot of people these days, I have become a dutiful sorter of trash, tossing various detritus into different receptacles: one for paper, one for glass, one for plastic, one for aluminum and one for good-old-fashioned garbage.

In my own personal case, this is mainly a matter of convenience and self-interest: my apartment has a very handy garbage chute that saves me the trouble of having to take out the trash but that can only accommodate very small bags. So, I separate out the other items - my wine bottles, beer cans, newspapers, etc. - place them in my differently colored bags and take them out to the curbside on Tuesday nights.

However, I've always had a sneaking suspicion that the guys in jumpsuits who come around Wednesday morning and pick up those blue and yellow and white bags are just throwing them into the same truck and dumping them into the landfill. One day I will follow them and prove my point, and then start looking for ways to invest the Pulitzer money - perhaps in a waste management company.

Now comes word that, even by pretending to be a "sustainable" citizen and putting off my journalistic glory, I may be causing harm. Turns out that separation of refuse into recyclable and compost-able material is actually damaging the respiratory systems of garbage collectors. This is according to a study in Scandinavia, where recycling and "sustainability" are ways of life.

Reports the BBC this week, "As the push for better recycling grows more people are being encouraged to sort their waste, potentially putting paper, glass, metals, plastics and vegetable matter for compost in separate sections. "But Scandinavian scientists have found that the organic waste was causing problems as the fortnightly collections allowed it to degrade and putrefy. They noticed that during the working week the respiratory tracts (windpipe) of the refuse collectors were much more inflamed than after they had rested for the weekend."

No wonder they always seem so upset. But that's not the only bad news to have emerged recently for recycling aficionados. Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper reports on another Scandinavian study that finds burning trash may be better for the environment than recycling.

"Throw away the green and blue bags and forget those trips to the bottle bank: recycling household waste is a load of, well, rubbish, according to leading environmentalists and waste campaigners," reports the Tele. "In a reversal of decades-old wisdom, they argue that burning cardboard, plastics and food leftovers is better for the environment and the economy than recycling."

It adds, "The claims, which will horrify many British environmentalists, are made by five campaigners from Sweden, a country renowned for its concern for the environment and advanced approach to waste."

In the UK, where environmental activists have a sort of hypnotic effect on large numbers of the population, some local authorities are already looking at incineration as a better alternative to recycling.

For instance, some towns are located far away from recycling centers, making it somewhat cumbersome to transport large quantities of beer bottles and copies of the Sun between the two. It would be easier to just burn or dump the stuff outside of town.

One official told the paper, "It's idealistic to think that everything can be recycled. It's just not possible. Incineration has an important role to play."

Add to this a spate of recent stories in the US showing that recycling may actually consume more energy than it saves, and that the alarms raised a decade ago about an alleged shortage of landfill space were premature and perhaps even wrong.

Meanwhile, most people keep up the charade of rinsing out their wine bottles (what about all that wasted water?) before taking them down to the glass bin. I may start to think twice before doing so, if only out of concern for the guys in jumpsuits.

Meanwhile, recycling companies should watch out. Intrepid journalists are on their trail.

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