CHAPTER TWO - Concepts

Will you wear green, oh my dear, oh my dear
Will you wear green Jenny Jenkins?
I won't wear green, I'm ashamed to be seen.
I'll buy me a tallyfally aye, sir.

From the singing of Bascom Lamar Lunsford
North Carolina folk song, recorded 1965

Why is recycling so boring?
Consider the stereotypes:
In this book, I will show you that this train of thought is no accident. Recycling has been corralled, boxed in and robbed of its vigor and promise. That serves the purposes of those powerful interests that thrive on digging up and stripping the earth of all its resources, to use them once and then discard them. They are trying to con you, along with the whole environmental movement!!

The garbage industry is pulling the strings and we are all dancing to their tune. They have taken what should be an exciting and revolutionary way to reorganize our use of all material resources and turned it into the poor orphan stepchild of the environmental movement..

Trees! Now there is something we can all love. And birds! Cuddly (or even squiggly) animals! Endangered species! Wetlands! Evil developers grab our attention too. Organic food is something we all need more of. Fish and whales and dolphins cry out for help. Energy efficiency has a well-funded, vocal and professional set of supporters who keep us informed about electric cars and the ozone hole and the greenhouse effect.

But what about those raw materials that get mined and extracted and ground into powder and heated and reacted by chemical companies? What about iron and copper and sand and salt and petroleum (there's a big one!) and water and air and coal and wood pulp and tree resin and uranium and borax and all the other things that go into paper and glass and steel and printed circuit boards and textiles and furniture and cars, trains and airplanes and walls and floors and decks and paints --- how have we been trained and cajoled to think about them?

Set aside the resources you think you could live without, like uranium. Let's focus on the copper, osmium, iron, chromium and plastic that make up a ballpoint pen. Or the petroleum based plastic that makes all those neat bags and holders and car parts and tape and clothing (yes, a lot of clothing nowadays is made of some kind of plastic). Let's call these industrial resources. They are industrial because they are used on a large scale. They are resources because we have to keep getting them from somewhere. They make up the hard goods of our lives. If there was any public consensus of how to approach these all together, how to think about the fact that we will need to continually find sources of these things, it would be a resource policy. I say "would be" because we basically don't have any such policy. We search the globe and grab whatever we need, use it up and throw it away. If we need something and another country has it, we will corrupt their government and put in a dictator who is happy to sell us the resources cheap. Nigerian oil, Afghan pipeline routes, Chilean cheap food and now Iraqi oil provide examples.

Wendell Berry characterizes our resource policy (and energy and farm policy) as "use up everything we have". Robert Glennon, writing about underground aquifers in Water Follies (2002) tells us that water underground is subject to the legal "rule of capture". The biggest pump wins. We know that industrial resources are important. But we are led to believe their use leads to these intractable problems, which we cannot transcend without corporate help:

And the NUMBER ONE fact of life here - once they are used, there isn't any other conceivable way to handle the unwanted remainders. We are all stuck on a revolving spiral - a huge drill bit boring deep into the ground as we twist it around and around each year, pulling up resources and injecting contaminants into the earth.

The obvious conclusion is that all of that mixing and melting and extruding and getting rid of is best left to the professionals, whoever they may be. And that includes the garbage removers and their friends, the regulators.

What This Book is About

Here is my thesis, which I will expand on in this book: We are supposed to think those things. Billions of dollars are spent to make us think that way. We are bombarded every day with propaganda to make sure we don't start thinking about resources more deeply. We are supposed to think that recycling is boring and difficult and being properly handled by the experts. We are supposed to think that garbage is natural and unavoidable. As I have publicly challenged these ideas over past years, I have met much resistance to these unorthodox views. It is the garbage industry that both fosters, and benefits from public acceptance of unsustainable practices. In this way they continue to charge extravagant prices for just hauling things to remote places and burying them. (The manufacturing industries help the garbage industry keep the film over our eyes but it's mostly the garbage industry that does the heavy lifting). Every dollar spent to spread this attitude is rewarded with ten dollars in easy profits. Why wouldn't they want to bombard us with propaganda! Some more cynicism is indicated here.

Here's the rest of my thesis: The above list of intractable problems is all wrong. It misses the important things and emphasizes the superficial. It leads to misdirected, sloppy thinking. For example, notice how it assumes that used resources are necessarily to be discarded, causing pollution. It implies that the answer would be to find better ways to destroy and discard. It immobilizes environmental awareness in a critical area, where it should be vital, thereby poisoning the whole environmental movement. How can we make progress in environmental awareness when we are being drowned in a flood of planetary destruction that we aren't even looking at constructively? How can we raise issues of planetary morality when we are impotent before the worldwide resource extraction industry (mining, petroleum, corporate agriculture) controlling trillions of dollars and getting richer by the day?

Industrial Resources

There are many better, more responsible and constructive ways to approach resources. A modern society, using chemicals and other industrial resources in great volumes can be compatible with a healthy planet. Our scientific and industrial society knows how to do much better than it is doing now. In part however, the parties in charge of chemical manufacturing don't want to do better. In part, laws supported by the garbage industry acting thru the government do not allow them to do better. Given the lack of active research, they can't see ahead far enough. And lastly, they can't do it without our help. There are many ways that we can understand how these resources could be better used without becoming immersed in technicalities. The basic principle of how to work with chemicals, using common sense for a healthy planet, depends on environmental awareness. It always has. We have to learn to recognize the simple truth even when it is wrapped in a technical cloud.

The Organic Model

I will be returning to the ideas in the previous paragraph in various ways. The industrial society is not an organic ecology in the same sense that a forest is. The high degree of exquisitely fine-tuned species interactions is not present, even though different elements do communicate and share inputs and outputs to a considerable extent. But the major difference is that industrial products are many orders of magnitude simpler than biological products. Proteins, enzymes, DNA, self-reproduction - the building blocks of living organisms are not significantly present in industrial materials. Though fats, sugars and natural products are used widely as raw materials, they are used as isolates, not as components in complex organisms. Most products of industrial chemistry are simple molecules that are well defined, well understood and (could be) well controlled. To try to project this comparatively simple industrial society onto the interconnected, complex model of a living, organic system means to ignore those simple levers for management and control the industrial system contains while we piously hope that the organic system can absorb, envelope and adjust to the simpler system. We have tried that already - phase one of the industrial revolution pretended that the industrial society could dump its waste outputs on the organic world and they would somehow disappear. We saw how that failed and is still failing. Organic systems are not good at absorbing alien products. If we insist on mixing incompatible models, the next failure may be even more dramatic. Loss of species, loss of clean water and air, loss of fish populations and climate disruption are examples already in process. They can't be allowed to proceed to full collapse!

How much or how many resources are there? If you think about all the resources being used, of course it is a mighty river beyond comprehension. In 1975, in the United States alone, an EPA study carried out by the Midwest Research Institute reported that approximately 125 million tons of urban garbage were being collected and discarded annually. Ignoring all the other components, they found these included 11 million tons of ferrous metals (iron, steel), 800,000 tons of aluminum and 400,000 tons of other metals, including copper. The numbers are much larger today. Metals are a potent indicator of waste because they are atomic, not molecular in nature, and atoms are indestructible. Metals can always be identified and reclaimed. What a gigantic waste of valuable metals every year! Metals are probably less than 10 percent of all garbage. And as I will show throughout this book, breaking down the garbage stream into materials this way means ignoring maybe 99% of the real value of the wasted resources. Metals serve complex functions in the articles they comprise. Losing that complexity is even worse than the loss of the lowly materials. So the problem tagged by these metals is a hundred times worse than even their enormous lost value would suggest. How did things get so bad?

The EPA's Role

A huge part of the scam is delegated by the garbage industry to the government, especially the federal government. The worst actor is the Environmental Protection Agency - a misnamed department if ever there was one. For the past thirty years the EPA has done everything it can to scuttle recycling, to hound recyclers into jail or bankruptcy, to squelch any whisper of a responsible resource policy, and to obstruct even those baby steps towards reuse that the Congress mandated in the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (which should be labeled the Resource Destruction and Disposal Act).

Many environmentalists have an attachment to the EPA because, however grudgingly, they have implemented the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and have closed up some polluting factories. I have no quarrel with those accomplishments but they are not representative of what has happened with respect to industrial resources. In this field, the EPA regulators are the storm troopers of planetary pollution. They swing their swords and brandish their clubs to insure that nothing progressive, that could endanger the profits of the garbage industry, is ever allowed. And they have been so successful that today, the active recycling of chemicals and most other high function items is just forgotten.

Obstacles to Recycling

For example, the Worldwatch Institute is a respected environmental observer of the state of the planet. Every year they put out a thick study of how the planet and the environmental movement are doing. I looked into their year 2000 study. Strangely, there is barely a single mention of resource recycling. It seems that they have absorbed the message that recycling is not worth discussing. I doubt that they even noticed this missing part of their report. We are all encouraged to ignore it and just fill up the garbage can.

Erik M. is a Chemistry Ph.D. working for a solvent distiller in Ohio. I asked him in 2004 to separate out $40,000 worth of a mixture of two valuable solvents that had been inadvertently mixed together. "I can do it" he told me. "The science is no problem. But if this has to be treated as a waste, the economics will become horrendous. Soon this recycling will all go away. No one will be able to do it". He meant that Byzantine government regulations make recycling all but impossible where the official designation of a solvent mixture is more important than what is being done with it.

The rest of this book will flesh out the ideas presented above. There are just a few caveats due here: One, I don't know of anything that will save our planet from an unrestrained population explosion. Population multiplied by consumption will overwhelm every improvement in practices. Population growth remains the number one environmental problem, the one that trumps all the others. I can show you how resources can be managed intelligently by a reasonable population but ten billion people trying to ape the American model of consumption - nothing will help that! Thirty-five million people in California alone? Where is the water to come from? Where are wild animals supposed to call home - a zoo? Two, I deal only lightly with political work, with political struggle or with organizing. Others can do that better than I. I am trying to expose a major problem and to develop tools for solving it. Will the tools be used? That is what politics is for. I did throw in a few thoughts on this subject in chapter 14 however.

Three, I am trying to complement, not replace the wonderful work done by the ecological branch of the environmental movement. Preserving the natural planet, before it becomes one giant human condominium, is saintly work. But the ecologists have a huge problem that they cannot solve alone. They are presented with pollution as a given. Society expects them to figure out how to make the pollutants that are dumped into their ecosystems disappear. They have no tools to deal with that other than the resilience of nature. They can go along with the hopelessly inadequate, so-called cleanups offered by governments, in which case the pollution will roll over them and the planet, because cleanup hardly means more than roping off one more piece of acreage and calling it off-limits. Or they can start over to think about the irresponsible use of resources and why they end up as pollution; the subject of this book.

Evil Chemicals

Four, I do not join in the hysterical clamor against all chemicals, everywhere. If you enter any chemical name on the web, leaving aside the pages from the chemical selling industry itself, all you will find is fear and distrust. The word chemical is everywhere joined to "toxic" or "pollution" or "waste" or "illness" or "carcinogen" etc. This does not reflect reality. Chemicals are made in the billions of tons and used to produce millions of products we could not do without. Computers, cell phones, cars, clothing, rope, lamps, ceramics, ink, metals - the list is endless. We are not going to live without chemicals. Fear of toxic chemicals is right. Keep them in reactors, tanks and pipes. Don't breathe, touch or drink them. This is what chemists know how to do. But use them we must. Besides which, chemistry embodies one of the great towering successes of mankind's intellect. The unraveling of chemical reactions and molecular structures opened the doors to physics in the early twentieth century and to biology in the late twentieth century. There is a need for personal and planetary defense against being poisoned but chemicals are more friends than enemies. If there is an enemy, it is the mentality which believes that chemicals can be discharged out into the natural world without taking any further responsibility. Organized corporate irresponsibility is the enemy.

The Uses of Language

Five, I will not use the sanitized vocabulary put forward by the garbage industry to make their jobs seem clean, fragrant and natural. Julia Butterfly Hill calls words magnifying glasses for consciousness. There are no landfills in my world, only dumps. The word dump at least retains the flavor of an unorganized, irresponsible, harmful, cancerous accumulation of unwanted debris. That is precisely why the garbage industry mounted a campaign in the 1970's to replace it with "landfill". But nothing changed on the ground, aside from cosmetic changes such as plastic liners and daily dirt covers, both of which left unchanged or worsened the horrible loss of resources involved.

I also will not use the term "waste" except to display momentarily the attitude of the world of garbage. The word "waste" when describing something no longer wanted, carries a connotation of unusable, unwanted, unrecyclable. It implies that "waste-ness" is somehow an intrinsic property of that article, rather than an artificial, socially imposed deficiency of imagination. Worse, it perpetuates the intolerable notion that we, our society, must generate piles of irredeemable trash which should by right be shoveled up, trucked around, handled by special authorities who may, if they care to, pluck out a scrap here, a crumb there for reuse. Instead I think that no-longer-wanted articles are orphans, excesses and byproducts yearning for a new home and that is how I refer to them. I spend a lot of time later on discussing the harm caused by official definitions of waste. Another favored euphemism is "waste management". This is a funny circumlocution for sanitizing an abomination. Waste is an obsolete concept. There is no way to manage it to make it acceptable, even if it becomes smooth as cream and twice as tasty. Not even if practically everyone has gotten used to it.

The garbage business created the phrase "waste stream" to indicate an endless river of trash rolling to its fate. Ordinary people accept this as part of the lexicon of garbage. It sounds a little more elevated somehow than "pile of garbage" or whatever preceded it. The image it conveys by comparison to a river is insidious. Divert a creek here, a stream there and you have an image of today's recycling. The river of waste itself is natural, inevitable, a force of nature, almost (dare I say it?) beautiful. Who can challenge the picture as the river of waste wends its way to the ocean, or the dumps or the incinerators?

The word "disposal" has been co-opted by the garbage industry too. Instead of meaning "finding a way to deal with a problem" or "coming to a decision" as it historically did, "disposal" has been emasculated to where it only means "bury or destroy it". The other options have just been "disposed of". Modern readers may soon be unable to make sense of the phrase "Man proposes, God disposes". What an ignoble end for a fine word which used to imply thoughtfulness.

I don't talk about "throwing things away", except pejoratively. Nothing gets thrown away. As Michael Anderson of Garbage Reincarnation in Santa Rosa likes to say, "where is this 'away'? There is no 'away'". You have responsibility for everything you control, whether you like it or not. Throwing something into a hole in the ground i.e. dumping, is your choice, even if you hire the garbage industry to do it for you. We have learned slowly that flushing a toilet doesn't make anything go 'away' either. Ditto with what goes into a garbage can. It is just stored underground, degraded and polluted. Why throw something "away" at all? In order to "get rid of it"! I can't tell you how many hundreds of times I have been told; "I just want to get rid of it", when discussing the recycling of an industrial resource, particularly large quantities of chemicals. In a civilized world, this thought will no longer cross the mind of anyone. It will be replaced by the thought "How should I treat this product that I am responsible for so that it proceeds to the next stage of reuse and recycle?"

The delusion that things "go away" when flushed down a toilet became a dramatic pivot point in the film Sleeping With The Enemy. Julia Roberts assumes that if she throws her wedding ring in the toilet it is gone. But the bad guy sees it lying there later and sets out to find her. Hollywood has a way of exposing cultural assumptions in marvelously simple ways. If you have been watching during the last twenty years, you will be familiar with the new meaning of the word "environmental". We have "environmental specialists" and "environmental departments" in companies. We have "environmental regulations" and "environmental engineering" and "environmental waste management". The new meaning is waste handling. Not waste recycling, not waste elimination. Every scrape-it-up-and-dump-it-in-a-hole chemical garbage company is now "Joe's Environmental Inc.". While all of the rest of the needed language is being actively corrupted, you would not expect the word "recycling" to have escaped, and indeed its meaning has been much altered. Whatever it may have meant 50 years ago, today it has been appropriated in the public media to mean the garbage industry view of resource cycling. You will find it referring to the collection of a gross garbage stream, followed by culling a small portion of that garbage to be sold into specialized markets for reuse of the component materials, the papcantle (see glossary). The recycling is to be carried on by processes of crushing, grinding, melting and similar gross, destructive methods. The so-called recycling companies spring from the garbage industry, are often indistinguishable in their operations from garbage collectors and share interlocking boards of directors and investors with the garbage industry. They are extensively reported on by the same publications that serve the garbage industry.

For example, I take note of an issue of a garbage industry newspaper, Waste News for December 10, 2001 which I selected more or less at random and is not exceptional in any way. Out of five stories headlined on the first page, every single one is about recycling or at least uses that word. But not one of them is about the kind of recycling that could ever challenge the supremacy of the garbage approach over excess resources. Inside, the ads are for packer trucks, dumpster rolloffs, conveyor belts, crushers and grinders.

The Focus on Garbage

In 1975 I gave my first public talk about recycling. At an EPA hearing in Oakland California I challenged the EPA's lie that it supported recycling. I read from the EPA's own bibliography of reports. I pointed out many hundreds of reports about every wrinkle and crinkle of how to bury garbage, destroy it with plasmas, heat and incineration; operate county dumps and bury chemicals. About recycling - there was one single minor report on tire recapping.

I made it quite clear that the EPA put every scrap of available research money into learning about garbage burial - which it claimed in its literature was its least favored option. And it did not spend a penny on recycling which it said was its most favored option. Obviously someone was not being truthful.

After the meeting, a garbageman from the BKK garbage company in Los Angeles introduced himself. "At my site in West Covina I have a thousand tons of zinc slag. Do you want it for recycling? I just want to get rid of it!" This was accompanied by a wide grin at how easily he had ridiculed my plea for recycling. In his mind, as in the mind of all garbagemen, recycling was seen as just an alternative way to "get rid of garbage" and if I didn't immediately embrace his slag, my plea for recycling was an empty boast. Then, as now, recycling was stuffed into the box of waste treatment. First make some product with no regard whatsoever for the byproducts, such as the zinc slag. Mix them all together into a reeking mess and then ask some recycler to perform a miracle. He should unmix all the ingredients, purify each one, find a constructive use for each, convince another businessman to use and buy each one, package, deliver, bill and collect for what he sells and maybe even take some of his profit to pay for (buy) the mess he started with. If the source dries up, the recycler receives no apology (much less a termination payment since he is given no contract). If the mess comes in one day mixed with some new kind of garbage, the recycler is expected to rise immediately to the challenge. Miracle is exactly the right word for this scheme - only a magic wand will make it happen. If he is lucky enough to be able to charge for his service, he is limited to charging less than the garbage hauler who competes with him but offers no technical, chemical, analytical, marketing or processing service. Post facto recycling like this is a delusion. Obviously the recycling needs to be built in at the front end, not added as an afterthought to the rear end.

The garbage collector on the other hand expects to be paid a small fortune to take the same slop, put it in his truck, take it to a hole in the ground and throw it in. He doesn't analyze it, he doesn't understand it, he doesn't worry about where it came from or why, he doesn't know what will happen to it and he doesn't care. But every branch of government will send in the police if the slop generator or property owner does not hire him promptly and pay his fees. In fact, some cities (Oakland California is an example) will even pay the garbage company promptly in your stead, then threaten you with fearsome sanctions such as putting the garbage bill on your tax bill or placing liens on your property, in order to collect. In other words, they are threatening to foreclose on and take your property if you don't pay your garbage bill promptly. They don't even do that for the electric utility!

I don't use the word slop accidentally. In most companies, the waste concept dictates that "stuff" or "junk" is placed somewhere until it can be "deep sixed" or "gotten rid of". It is referred to as "crap" or worse. It's true fate is to be discarded but if some recycler can somehow make a few dollars, he may be allowed to have some of the "crap" on short notice. These attitudes make opportunistic recycling almost unworkable. This is why, in the next chapter, I propose the elimination of all dumps as the method, par excellence, for moving to a recycling society. No recycling program can long survive in competition with cheap, governmentally enforced and subsidized dumping.

So long as the garbage industry defines the framework of our thinking, it doesn't matter what we call the operations of handling excesses. When we hear of green manufacturing, clean technologies or product stewardship, the actual application of these fine sounding words will be contaminated by an approach which, at very best, relies on reuse of the lowest possible value inherent in the articles, namely the bare materials

The problem of language goes deeper than a word here or there. The particular path that was forced on us by the US EPA over the past thirty years has formed our conceptual language. Every citizen of the world knows the phrase "hazardous waste" and has a headful of associated concepts to go along with it. We are reminded of dumps, pollution, polluters, white hatted environmental groups demanding cleanups and overnight specialists in white moon-suits to do their bidding. We know of digging up contaminated land, analyses for lead, MTBE, uranium, phenols, dioxin etc. We carry in our minds a satisfying picture of the good guys always cleaning, cleaning, and the bad guys always polluting. The universe of concepts is closed. The term "hazardous waste" has swallowed up all rational discussion of chemical recycling. By applying that term meaning "dangerous garbage" immediately and universally to all unwanted chemical excesses, an impression of pervading disgust and danger is insidiously attached to valuable, useful and reclaimable byproducts. For example, a joint committee from Canada, Mexico and the United States recently reported on the increasing amounts of hazardous waste being transported to Canada and how that is dependent on the national regulations. Even chlorinated solvents, (whose actual fate in Canada is probably mostly distillation and recycling), is simply subsumed within their census of "hazardous waste" shipments. It goes without saying that no similar report on transboundary shipments of recycled chemicals will be seen. The garbage industry terminology has gobbled up even a serious discussion of reuse as a policy. In this book, I hope to make it plain that few of the concepts we need for thinking about the fate of industrial chemicals and resources are supplied by this impoverished "standard model".

The language of waste is not limited to the United States. Social acceptance of these corrupted concepts of waste is a worldwide phenomenon. Except for the single bright spot of Japan that I know of, garbage collection, dumping and dumpheap recycling is the accepted model throughout the world. In spite of all the public fascination with recycling, everybody somehow just knows that garbage is natural. Ask almost anyone - they will tell you that total recycling can never really work, there will always be garbage. Many a discussion of excesses starts with an otherwise perceptive citizen realizing he can cut thru all the messy details with the unchallengeable principle - "It has to be put somewhere!". The only remaining question is - where? On the first page of his book, Garbage Wars, David Pellow starts out with that very presumption. How can you oppose such a seemingly obvious proposition? The basic problem is that when most people ponder the possibilities of recycling, they conceive of it as a mere add-on to the familiar world of garbage. Forward thinking environmentalists in this field no longer are thinking that way. We don't imagine that future citizens will be presented with a river of unwanted detritus which they must constantly put somewhere with no help or infrastructure. We don't imagine a world filled with trash bins and then, as an afterthought, a box marked Recyclables. We understand perfectly well that this is the picture of a guaranteed failure. We imagine an infrastructure which no longer allows the creation of mixed trash but supports and informs a sophisticated reuse industry. Viewed this way, recycling makes much more sense. I listened to a hip-hop/rock musician describe a concert he gave in Japan to 80,000 people. Unlike a comparable American or European experience, at the end of the concert there was not a single cup or plastic utensil or bottle or cigarette butt on the ground. There were separate receptacles for every item sold or used. People carried closable ashtrays on chains around their necks, into which they placed their butts until they got to one of the cigarette butt receptacles, These were seen to be packed full at the end of the concert. On the other hand, I have read garbage industry descriptions of cleaning up the unspeakable mess following an American football game. The report took pride in the efficiency of collection and dumping of the garbage strewn everywhere.

This puts me in mind of the Burning Man festival held every September in the Nevada desert. Upward of thirty thousand people, from a number of countries, pay hundreds of dollars for the privilege of bringing absolutely everything they will need for a week of revelry. Every drop of water and scrap of food or costume must be trucked in. But at the end, they all take official pride that there is not a single trace of their occupation remaining on the desert floor. Every single item is similarly reversed out of the desert and back home. Crews scour the ground for a nail, a bead or a crumb that would reveal their past presence. Attendees attribute the welcome extended by the state of Nevada to their festival partly to this warranty of conservation.


An essential goal of any system model is to provide a way to measure progress. The standard model of garbage puts forward a poor measure indeed, which they call "diversion". It depends on a comparison between the primitive tonnage of goods being recycled and the primitive tonnage of the garbage stream from which it came. What about recycled articles and goods which were never garbage to begin with? Easy, just don't count them. Once more we are faced with the difference between recycling as being primary and as a subset of garbage management. Current laws view garbage management as the essential activity. The garbage industry is the proper steward of unwanted resources which they should find a way to reuse. It makes no particular difference how well or poorly those resources are reused. It makes no difference whether the largest part of those resources are destroyed in order to reuse the smallest part. Progress means diversion from garbage. And the research money, the recycling grants all follow this flawed and meaningless measure.

When vague, fuzzy and unscientific concepts replace careful monitoring and measurement in this way, no one knows what is actually going on. Diversion is assumed to be a fraction - that fraction of a garbage collection that is recycled. But what happens when recycling is simply a commercial operation, having nothing to do with any garbage anywhere. Even if we allow, for the moment, this distasteful idea of measuring recycled goods by their weight (a garbage based notion) then the ratio of recycled weight to collected garbage will rise to 1 or 2 or 10 or 100. A better way to measure recycling for most purposes is to estimate its value in goods resold, or goods recaptured, or resources saved. Gross weight means nothing.

The focus on garbage obscures the vast extent of recycling. As soon as a new mechanism for reuse of any article is found, it just becomes ordinary manufacturing and fades into the commercial background. We have heard about the wonderful new world of disposable clothing but what law and who keeps in mind the fact that everyone today "recycles" all their clothing in a process called washing? Similarly for pots and pans and dishes. And who thinks of the vast automobile repair and maintenance industry as a recycling industry? The huge home improvement market supports the recycling of houses for as long as they can be patched or painted. Without reuse and recycling our economy would fall apart. Surely these are the models that we should be striving to extend to all resources, not more efficient garbage management.

You will not find a lot of statistics about garbage collection and generation; or rates of pollution and its cleanup in this book. I will not explore in any depth the details of laws, judgments and regulations, the training of hazmat warriors or even the marginal successes of plucking this or that excess material for clever reuse. My concern is to change the very societal climate in which the life cycles of articles of commerce are viewed. Existing practices are uninteresting.

Principles of Recycling

I want to leave you with mental tools, a better way of thinking about resources, their cycles and their fates. The next time someone tries to sell you on a huge industrial program for wastefully converting biomass into fuel, you should be prepared to express intelligent doubts. When the garbage industry goes out to sell methane gas from their closed dumps as proving that they are sweet environmentalists at heart, you should be able to see thru that horrible waste of resources that is a dump, methane or no methane.

I will not be praising the recycling of paper, cans and bottles - my papcantle - even though industry magazines are full of the millions of tons recycled and the ins and outs of equipment and stock offerings and sales of companies. In one sense it's better that such materials are recycled than not, but in another sense these companies are more a symbol of the success of the garbage industry in degrading the entire concept of recycling than a symbol of recycling. The methods and forms of recycling represented by these industries are the most primitive possible. They recycle materials exclusively, never functions. If there is any research done at all, it is crippled by being limited to materials recycling unrelated to any overall resource policy. Thirty years ago, these were forward looking industries. Today they are dinosaurs, an evolutionary dead end, even though they process millions of pounds. Functional recycling is like the little mammals, scurrying among the ferns, destined to take over from the slow witted monsters.

Other progressively minded observers notice that recycling is not working. William McDonough is a widely published architect with a powerful attachment to environmental design. In a recent interview he took issue with people who act as though recycling is a cleansing, moral stand. He pointed out that most of so-called recycling is actually "downcycling", meaning going from a high function to a forced, inappropriate, low function, such as simple material usage. McDonough doesn't see why contemporary recycling is even worth doing.

In his best-selling book, Stupid White Men, Michael Moore is similarly derisive about recycling. He reports finding that a huge amount of the goods collected for nominal recycling was actually going into dumps. In his chapter Nice Planet, Nobody Home he says; "No real recycling was taking place. We were being conned".

I agree with these observers. However, they have missed the point. Their doubts were paid for by an industry that fears recycling and insures its failure. They must look behind the curtain to see what potential lies in recycling when truly applied as a resource policy.

In a recent interview on National Public Radio, Ira Glass went to an academic who studies garbage and asked him if it is true that recycling glass bottles is not much better than discarding them. The expert correctly explained that the amount of heat energy needed to melt broken glass was about the same as that needed to melt the original sand (silicon dioxide) and since sand was not in short supply, recycling accomplished little. See how subtly the garbage mentality is used to undermine recycling. Of course there is no point to remelting broken glass! What a foolish idea! But by refilling a glass bottle, all of the expensive function can be reclaimed. If you adopt garbage concepts as your framework, all reasonable roads lead to the dump.

Government operations, especially military ones are some of the most wasteful you can find. In the late eighties the United States began to anticipate the Chemical Weapons Convention, since signed by 170 countries. The US and Russia agreed to destroy most of their chemical munitions. In 1990, the US Army built a destruction facility on Johnson Atoll near Hawaii. The goal of eliminating chemical weapons is laudable but why is wasteful destruction always the only option considered? Clearly the public's revulsion against fearsome chemical agents is translated by some kind of hidden mental algebra into a destruction wish. There is never a public discussion in such matters of the fact that such munitions are well defined chemical species, presumably capable of being altered by chemical transformations into other, useful, safe chemical compounds. Most important, there is no public perception whatsoever that recapturing chemical value should be important. In 2001, after incinerating 7% of the US arsenal, about 4 million pounds of highly specific chemicals representing huge inputs of creative care and production, the facility is being shut down in one final paroxysm of destructive insanity. Every part of the facility is required by law to be destroyed - the furnace, the piping, the electrical wiring. No part of the facility can be recycled for reuse at other incinerator sites. Where does such reckless hatred of inanimate objects come from? What purpose does it serve in a world dying for lack of conservation? This is the kind of thinking that has turned military bases around the world into some of the worst examples of polluted land.

In the seventies a story was told of the destruction of a banned chemical war gas called phosgene. In fact, this gas is a horrible weapon when used against troops and it was a civilized impulse when its use was banned. The US Army was, as always, prepared to incinerate millions of pounds of it but at the same time, phosgene is an important, simple, industrial raw material, being a kind of chlorinated carbon dioxide. All kinds of plastics, pesticides and pharmaceuticals are made from phosgene. The obvious thing was to change the label from WAR GAS to PHOSGENE and sell it into the chemical industry.

The opposition to this basic recycling approach was clamorous. War gas is evil and must be stepped on like a bug. But the incineration was going to cost a fortune. At long last Energy Secretary James Schlesinger approved the recycle option on the condition that the chemical name be changed to Chlorinated Urea in all public references. Sad to say, this kind of rational workaround is the exception.

A better result has come out of a more recent project by the military to find a user for an older explosive, no longer in use, called picric acid. I have been asked to market a million pounds of pure picric acid which is a surplus from unused inventory and dismantled munitions. Perhaps the tide is changing.

War is extraordinarily wasteful.. When George Bush optimistically estimates the cost of invading Iraq to be $200 billion, he is contemplating waste on a scale unmatched by civilian society. It is not the money itself but the huge investment in resources and manufacturing which is lost when a million dollar missile explodes, not to mention what it destroys. The money merely measures the amount of resources that were expended to build it. It is meaningless in this context to say "we can afford it".

In 2004, under the backward facing Bush administration, the EPA started recommending that low level radioactive wastes should be able to be thrown into municipal trash in residential garbage cans. Such wastes come from smoke detectors, medical labs, research labs, and industrial processes. Recyclability depends crucially on separation of all articles. One of the great accomplishments of the last thirty years was the separation of all manner of dangerous items from the bulk of household articles. These hazards include chemicals, radioactives and infectives. Now the EPA, in its desperation to throw away radioactives cheaply, is willing to return them to municipal garbage. The reporting I have read from environmentalists is regrettably focused only on pollution, even though dumps are a quintessential resource issue. They observe that since all dumps leak, the radioactives will inevitably contaminate groundwater. But as a recycler, I imagine, at least for now, hordes of previously reclaimed articles, such as at dumpsite recycling centers, being shunned because they could be contaminated with invisible radioactivity. Anyone who strives to recover from garbage will be scared off. Dumps will descend into collections of horribly frightening trash that cannot even be approached.

No one wants to be poisoned and few are satisfied to think of the earth being poisoned. But the wastemaking establishment has managed to turn such thinking into a ready tool. Just as the Wolfman and Dracula once were synonymous with horror, now the very word toxicity has become a dreaded mark, a symbol of irremediable revulsion. It is not part of the common understanding that chemicals possess one of the most useful properties any material can have - their interconvertibility. Essentially every single chemical can be converted into a whole class of similar or even remotely related molecules. These are different in many ways. A gas can be converted to a solid and vice versa. A colored compound can be changed into a colorless one. An innocuous chemical can be changed into a toxic one. But, and you should never lose sight of this, a toxic war gas can be changed into a useful fertilizer or into a plastic or a drug to cure cancer. The converted products have for all practical purposes, no relation whatsoever to the original application. Toxicity is not a property that is necessarily preserved when chemicals react. There is however one property which does tend to be preserved in controlled reactions - molecular complexity, of which I say more in following chapters. Reactions and transformations may well conserve and even add to molecular complexity. (Combustion is the great exception). Creating complexity costs money and other resources. Conserving complexity is an example of reusing function. When you destroy complexity without making use of it, you squander resources.

Universal Recycling is the only positive, general solution offered for the problems of pollution, contamination and toxic accumulation. Recycling is the part of the argument that has been missing in environmental discussions. Before now, we have been in the preliminary phase of environmental awareness. We have been battling against bad stuff but we have had no better alternative to put forward, other than shutting down the store. At Yucca Mountain Nevada, the nuclear industry wants to create a huge storehouse of unwanted nuclear excesses from decades of irresponsible generation in nuclear fuel plants. Major opposition, which includes the state of Nevada, has arisen to oppose this storage. But they have no alternative except continued storage onsite in hundreds of locations around the country. There is no active, industrial way to deal with excesses which are radioactive. I don't think that recycling has completely escaped their thinking but the political and intellectual will to fully apply perceived common sense is lacking. "We would be laughed at" is a worry. Recycling of some of the bulk fuel in reprocessing plants has been widely discussed so recycling is already a part of the conversation. But the politicians have chosen to emphasize the dangers of reprocessing over the advantages so the discussion of recycling was nipped in the bud. No advocate has come forward to challenge the prevailing mood of fear of reprocessing and demand it. There is no recognition that radioactives could share a universal response to all "hazardous waste" generation.

Print Media

An article from Time Magazine in 1993 revealed the terrible shape recycling was in and exposes the easy way that fallacious thinking permeates our culture, passing for conventional wisdom. It appeared in response to a fairly conservative attempt by President Bill Clinton to have the federal government buy stationery with 20% recycled fiber content. You have to know how to read between the lines of these articles, which appear in all our newspapers.

ENVIRONMENT: RECYCLING: STALLED AT CURBSIDE More and more people are sorting their garbage, but industry often can't handle the volume. ( Time Magazine) BRUCE VAN VOORST 10-18-1993 ( The author points out that the national recycling effort is deeply troubled even though Americans are more than willing to sort their trash and even though the number of recycling programs is now up to 4000 communities. He notes that these programs collect far more materials than the recycling industry can handle.

He characterizes collection programs as recycling programs but in fact they are not. As the rest of the article suggests, these are garbage collection programs masquerading as recycling. Their main function is to help the garbage industry hogtie recycling, thus keeping it under their control and to reinterpret recycling into garbage management so that genuine recycling can never get started.

"That means that the bottles, milk jugs and catalogs that are diligently separated into appropriate bins and carefully taken to the curbside often end up all jumbled together in the same landfill". The author tells us that this is "simple economics" - too much supply for the demand, but he fails to understand how today's so-called recycling works. The economics are not simple at all. They are manipulated by the garbage industry so that recycling appears deficient. These programs struggle to make do with recycling materials, rather than function, making failure predictable. Recycling is forced to compete with dumping cheap materials in subsidized dumps.

Mr. Van Voorst points out that prices have dropped precipitously (and in the year 2004 they are even worse). His quote is that the average value of a ton of household waste fell from $100 in 1988 to $44 in 1992. He finds mounds of glass bottles in Seattle and warehouses full of unusable plastic in South Carolina.

Piles of unrecyclables with nowhere to go - this is the dream of the garbage industry as they hijack recycling. They can point to real, physical piles of so-called unrecyclable products and give the impression to lawmakers and the public that recycling is a failure. Like most commentators, the author is swayed by the garbage industry line. He sees no solutions in recycling. He sees that there is still lots of space to dump garbage. He places hope in incineration for getting rid of it all. He is blind to the enormous subsidies behind so-called cheap garbage disposal (see chapter 7 for a discussion of such subsidies). The proponents of incineration remind one of the proponents of nuclear energy in that all the serious problems are simply ignored, as though they never existed. The fact is that a very small proportion of discarded items are capable of burning, though the salesmen for incineration tend to act as though incineration were a universally general method for making all garbage disappear. Burning destroys the highest values, the functions, of discarded objects and creates a sludge and ash which is intractable for any further use except burial in a dump. The few garbage-to-energy plants which were rammed through in past decades at public expense, could not even sell their steam energy and ended up being black holes of public investment. Mr. Van Voorst finishes his depressing summation of recycling with a discussion of the problems involved in separating - or failing to separate - glass of different colors. He shows no awareness that the public discussion is rigged. Glass bottles should of course be refilled, not converted into broken glass. But if they must be, no research has been done on the quite tractable problems of separating bottle colors using machine readable markers. We all know that sorting today consists of hand separation by consumers into different containers or while dumping bins of bottles into dumpsters. Even at recycling centers the style of collection is one which encourages breaking of the bottles. What if the bottles were left intact and each bottle was marked with a machine readable barcode showing its color, volume, style, normal contents, material of construction, labeling method and sealing design? But existing problems are perfect for the garbage industry to point to. Research into and upgrading of recycling is not in their interests.

Finally Mr. Van Voorst presents a predictable litany of changes he sees as progress. They mostly turn on innovative companies using excess materials in new products. He quotes the success of a pallet company, Custom-Pac Extrusion Inc, in making pallets that outlast wood from fused, mixed plastic. He overlooks the foolishness of ignoring the original functions of plastic articles, then ignoring the properties of the plastic materials they were made from, to force incompatible materials into a single mass, with little more than a prayer that they will not crack apart and self-destruct. This bogus recycling program for plastic has been flaring up periodically for thirty years now, as new, bright-eyed entrepreneurs with no background in recycling theory encounter a cheap, unwanted material (mixed plastic) for the first time. The better path is to design for recycling at the start, not just to figure out how to make use of current garbage.

Praise for these products exists in a vacuum created by the degraded approach of recycling mixed materials, not function. Plastics are all different and there are thousands of different kinds. They all melt at different temperatures and all have different kinds of physical and chemical properties. The very worst way to reuse them is to try to ignore their properties and squeeze them together by brute force into park benches and pallets. Recycling is not just a one-time reuse. Products can potentially be reused without limit. By degrading function on the very first reuse, we destroy all the future reincarnations of these plastic components.

This is only a single typical article among hundreds reporting the same depressing facts. Had the author been a specialist in this field, he would have known that the situation is much worse than this snapshot shows. In fact the recycling situation is sliding downhill fast. In ten more years will this article describe a golden age of recycling?

The November 26, 2001 issue of Waste News sports a front page article entitled No End in Sight for Recycling Downturn. "This year has been unkind to the recyclable commodities market and not just one commodity. Most materials have dipped to extreme lows and recyclers should prepare for a lean 2002."

Much of the newspaper outlines a dismal picture of falling prices and non-existent profits. I expect the situation to become much worse. The problem is not one of free markets, as claimed by the garbage establishment, but of a fundamentally mistaken concept of resource management. As real recycling is pushed out of any consideration and the garbage industry asserts its control over all discards, even this low-grade form of material recycling is becoming burdensome to the industry.

Flow Control

Our society has become so divorced from clear thinking on the subject of "waste" that it has come to treat garbage as a coherent concept, all one thing, all of it subject to one uniform set of rules. Our laws pretend that garbage is an economic good which can be managed, exchanged, directed and invested in.

In Chapter 7, I discuss how flow control has become the code name for just this kind of thinking.

Are these people crazy? The rules are as meaningless as kids coming to blows over which little tin soldier shot first. The entire planet is being ripped and stripped to supply the huge quantities of garbage being fought over by cities, states and garbage companies. It's all so unnecessary. Instead of fighting about where to put it, can't these putative leaders wage war on wastefulness instead? It isn't even technically difficult. All it would take is the will, and most of this garbage, ultimately almost all of it, would simply disappear. Instead of garbage companies fighting for the right to rape the public, there would be a hundred thousand companies engaged in the challenging business of reuse.

The road to recycling will start with a change in our conceptual framework. Let us first understand how we are being fooled, then how we can think more constructively, then we will build the infrastructure to make it happen.