Recycling's only the first step in waste management


July 26, 1992|By Christopher J. Murphy

I have read with some interest the recent debate in The Carroll County Sun concerning new county laws mandating recycling. Eloquent arguments were made both by [Westminster] Mayor [W. Benjamin] Brown (for) and Ms. [Sharon W.] Hornberger (against).

However, both writers have failed to bring forth sufficiently a few significant facts about recycling.

Landfill space, as both recognize, is a pressing issue. The vast majority of all municipal waste in the country is land-filled; even that portion which is burned for "energy recovery" in power plants must be land-filled as ash.

It is critical to realize that recycling and reuse can only delay the land-filling of most waste, not prevent it. Paper, for example, can generally be recycled four to six times before its fibers become so short as to be useless for most purposes.

Whence does the much-recycled paper go? Into a landfill.

Scrap steel (from cans, buildings, old machinery, etc.) builds up impurities as it is recycled; eventually, it becomes more cost-efficient to buy new steel or scrap than to continue removing impurities from the old scrap (which then, of course, is land-filled).

The same is true with almost any recyclable or reusable material: Though we can extend its useful life to a great degree, we cannot ultimately prevent it from becoming waste. Thus, recycling is only a short-term answer to waste management problems.

And, sadly, short-term answers are the most popular with both the public and politicians because they require little effort and sacrifice, are easy to implement, and produce a few immediate results that lull people into thinking that the problem has been solved for good.

I am by no means against recycling; to the contrary, I am all for it. It is a step in the right direction; and it makes people feel good about doing something for our environment.

Unfortunately, many citizens (even those who have faithfully recycled bottles, cans and papers for years) and legislators see recycling as the "magic" tool.

There is only one viable long-term solution to our waste disposal (and pollution) problems -- we must generate less waste in the first place!

LTC Generating less waste means making a conscious commitment to changing one's habits, philosophies and lifestyle. As anyone who has tried to lose (and keep off!) a few pounds or stop biting their nails (both areas in which I struggle) can tell you, changing even minor habits takes a considerable amount of will power.

The past 40 years of American economic history show that our people have become used to consuming ever more and more of almost everything. It will be extremely difficult to break from our wasteful consuming habits.

If you doubt this, try a simple experiment -- make a commitment to reduce your gasoline bill by 10 percent in August. That doesn't sound too drastic. There are a number of ways you could use less gasoline, including: getting a thorough engine tuneup (or doing it yourself), changing the oil (ditto), inflating your tires properly, car pooling one or two days per week, buying a more fuel-efficient car, or using a bicycle for short trips.

However, each of these methods involves a sacrifice of time, money, convenience and/or comfort that many people aren't willing to make. It will take a fair amount of determination and will power to make a 10 percent reduction in your gasoline consumption!

The bottom line is this: Unless we are all willing to begin making changes in the ways we consume our resources, our waste disposal problems will continue to grow.

Recycling will make them grow more slowly; however, the price of waste disposal (both economic and ecological) is one that we cannot avoid paying. Let's all join together and support the new recycling mandates. At the same time, let's all think about how we can generate just a bit less waste to begin with.

Mr. Murphy, who lives in Westminster, is a lifelong resident of Carroll County and a Latin teacher at Randallstown High School in Baltimore County. He is pursuing a master's degree in policy science at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, with an emphasis in environmental regulatory policy.

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