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'Recycle Mania' returns to the UA


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Rui Wang
Columnist
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, February 3, 2005
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POINT: Reusing, not recycling, provides most benefits to society

"Americans have embraced recycling as a transcendental experience, an act of moral redemption ... we're performing a rite of atonement for the sin of excess." This is how John Tierney, a reporter for The New York Times Magazine, characterized the fervor surrounding recycling in 1996.

Recycling programs have the best of intentions, and indeed any development of a "conservation ethic" is constructive. The problem: Solely developing a recycling ethic is not tantamount to developing a conservation ethic. Too much emphasis on recycling versus the other two R's - renewal and reuse - can be dangerous.

The Recycle Mania campaign that kicked off this week is another indication that recycling is sexier than reuse. Where's the Reuse Mania? It could be that it's more difficult to measure and convert into a nation-wide collegiate competition.

At the UA, the diversion rate - the amount of material being diverted from the landfill into recycling and reuse - is 14.4 percent, compared to a national average diversion rate of 22 percent for colleges and universities. The UA Facilities Management report indicates that the amount conserved from its recycling efforts is equivalent to saving more than 11,000 trees or the electricity of 250 homes per year. This is great progress, but let's not pat ourselves on the back just yet. The recycling statistics can obscure the importance of other conservation measures.

Photo
Illustration by Mike Padilla

The National Resource Defense Council, a leading supporter of recycling programs, concedes that other waste-reduction tactics such as reusing durable goods or reducing consumer packaging might just be environmentally preferable to recycling. These tactics have a drawback, however, because they require more discipline and have proven harder to implement.

This is where everyone can help. Instead of focusing on sending items off to the recycle bin, think about giving priority to reuse and reduction: Take plastic bags back to the grocery store, store cardboard boxes flat and use them again, avoid double bagging items such as produce in multiple layers of packaging. With reuse, consumers can reduce the demand for packaging materials, which can decrease their production in the first place.

Composting, recycling kitchen waste, is another action that doesn't get as much attention but reduces landfill use while conserving non-renewable energy. The NRDC notes that food waste composes about 9 to 15 percent of daily trash, but it is also the easiest thing to break down. Directors for New York City's Department of Sanitation have looked into efforts to compost kitchen waste on a citywide basis, but those plans are in their infancy. Until such plans can be implemented on a municipal level, individual composting will help reduce the amount of garbage going into landfills.

Too much skepticism about recycling can also be flawed. The Daily Telegraph reports that Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish professor and scientist who has spent much of his career criticizing prevailing environmental policy, favors limited recycling programs and incineration over recycling. Keep in mind that incineration releases air pollutants, while Lomborg's justification against widespread recycling is the overly optimistic view that technology and natural regeneration will always stay ahead of resource use. He also doesn't believe that landfill reduction through recycling is important, despite the health and aesthetic problems that landfills present.

Recycling is a complex issue, and we should neither condemn its usefulness nor blindly toss our trash into convenient blue bins.

Rui Wang is a third-year law student. She can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

COUNTERPOINT: Recycling puts conservation into public consciousness

We are consumers, and there's no denying that. But in our endless consumption, we have left the environment behind bruised, battered and extracted to near death - and hardly anyone cares. A CNN poll in December proclaimed that the environment is the 14th most important issue on Americans' minds, just behind immigration. Apparently preventing Mexicans from crossing the border is more important than our future.

One simple program to help the environment that doesn't receive enough emphasis is recycling. Recycling only requires enough ecological concern to make the sensible choice about which bin to throw trash in. At the same time, it is a huge help to the environmental cause.

Photo
Dan Post
Columnist

Consider the case of paper and trees: Recycling paper reduces demand for extreme logging - the benefits of which include fewer roads in wilderness areas and healthier forests. Recycling paper also eliminates much of the pollution associated with turning fresh cut trees into paper products. The virgin paper industry creates the single highest amount of wastewater of any industry in America, with more than 1.55 trillion gallons of toxic water produced as a byproduct of turning trees into pulp. Recycled paper uses a lot of water in production, but because the pulp has already been made, the toxicity of its waste is significantly lower.

Most of the materials that are recycled yield a similar story.

But recycling has yet to reach its full potential. Only about one-fifth of total national waste products are recycled. Moreover, only 50 percent of the people in this country have access to curbside recycling. It is still not as easy and as commonplace as it should be.

This is why recycling programs like Residence Life's Recycle Mania are important. The program, a national competition between universities nationwide, encourages the campus community to be more environmentally conscious. And the UA is especially wise in pursuing this goal: our recycling as a percentage of total waste is 8 percent lower (14.4 percent) than the national average for universities (22 percent). Our recycling effort is so poor that the amount this campus recycles per year is only equivalent to the amount of energy needed to power 250 houses.

Just the other day on campus I saw a guy accidentally grab two newspapers; instead of putting one back on the rack or recycling it, he just threw it in the trash and hurried on his way. This speaks directly to the need for recycling to become even more mainstream.

Maybe greater incentives are needed to get folks to recycle. Posada San Pedro Residence Hall is offering an ice cream party to the floor that recycles the most during the competition. But why should we need incentives to recycle - isn't a common caring about the future of the environment enough incentive? That is idealistic, but maybe not too far fetched.

Just 20 years ago, it was perfectly acceptable to throw garbage out of the window of a moving car. Now, that garners a $500 fine.

Hopefully, in 20 years, it will be a $500 fine to throw away a newspaper or a plastic bottle instead of recycling it. To reach that goal, programs like Recycle Mania are a good place to start.

Dan Post is an anthropology and ecology senior. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.



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