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Garbage in.

On the cover of The New York Times Sunday Magazine not long ago was a story entitled, "What a Waste: Recycling squanders money and good will, and doesn't do much for the environment, either."

It was one of the most unbalanced stories in recent years, but it must have been comforting for The New York Times, which by the author's own admission, cuts down 75,000 trees each week for its mammoth Sunday edition. Indeed, the author, John Tierney, a Times staffer, sucks up to his bosses by saying "newspaper and magazine publishers, whose products are a major component of municipal landfills, nobly led the crusade against trash....It's the first time that an industry has conducted a mass-media campaign informing customers that its own product is a menace to society."

Not to worry, fellas, says Tierney. It's not a menace after all. To support his theory, he quotes heavily from libertarian organs like the Cato Institute, the Reason Foundation, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He also leans on industry sources like the Waste Policy Center and the Solid Waste Association of North America.

Tierney and his sources sing a hymn to the free market. "When consumers follow their preferences, they are guided by the simplest, and often the best, measure of a product's environmental impact: its price."

He uses this point of faith to argue that disposable polystyrene cups are better for the environment than ceramic mugs. "You would have to use the mug 1,000 times before its energy-consumption-per-use is equal to the cup," he writes, citing a study by a chemist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.

Tierney, however, does not address the problem of disposing of polystyrene cups. To hom, the problem is nonexistent. Throwing garbage into landfills does not matter, he says. The United States has plenty of space for all our garbage. What's more, landfills are not dangerous anyway, he adds, citing unnamed studies that suggest that even Love Canal is safe.

Depleting our resources is also no problem, he says. "The oil scare of the 1970s was temporary, just like all previous scares about resource shortages." Go ahead, consume away.

His main point is that it costs less to collect unsorted garbage than it does to collect garbage sorted for recycling. But even he notes that recycling does save energy in the long run, since manufacturing recycled paper consumes fewer resources than chopping down trees to make fresh paper.

To this, he counters: "Saving a tree is a mixed blessing. When there's less demand for virgin wood pulp, timber companies are likely to sell some of their tree farms--maybe to condominium developers."

There's a strawman to beat all strawmen. Tierney neglects to acknowledge that the timber companies actually get much of their wood from the national forests that all of us own. They are a public good, not mere materials of production. And it seems unlikely that we'll be selling those forests to condominium developers any time soon. In fact, if the timber companies would only get out of our national forests, maybe we could enjoy them for what they are, not what they can be made into.

But Tierney can't see the forest for the trees.
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:New York Times Sunday Magazine writer John Tierney is assailed for his attack on recycling
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Column
Date:Aug 1, 1996
Words:536
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