Commentary: The Darker Side of Recycling

Lead Author: Dr. Jeff Howe

Publish date: 05.01.2005


I'm Feeling Guilty - and I'm Not Catholic


Last month's article on recycling started me thinking, and I began to look around our office, and evaluate our paper usage. We are a small office, but we seem to recycle a lot of paper. And we try to do all the little things correctly. I mean, we print on both sides, and when we don't, we use the backside of paper as notepaper. And we save everything we can. We reuse envelopes that come in, we save all scraps for notepaper, etc. etc. Heck, even when I have the occasion to be generous enough to buy more than one coffee at the local coffee shop, and require a carrier, I return that cardboard carrier the next time I go in. (You should have seen their faces at the coffee shop the first time I did that! I was obviously the first!). But even with all that being said, we still generate a sizeable box of waste paper to recycle every couple weeks.


So I began to do a little self-evaluation. I found that much of my personal foundation as a do-gooder has its basis in my skills at recycling. Because I recycle, I feel less concerned about the volume of paper I use personally and less outraged at the volume of junk pressed upon me through the mail, in packaging, and within the newspaper. I've concluded that, in spite of my smug self-importance as an “environmentalist,” I am probably using more paper today than I did ten years ago. Oops!


I may not be alone. Our recycling report last month pointed out that not only is the usage of paper going up as population rises and economies grow, but per capita consumption is increasing as well. Now, the reasons behind this may be complex, as this particular statistic incorporates a variety of products, including all those “invisible” products such as packaging in the warehouses and factories. But, nevertheless, the numbers suggest that others might be feeling and acting the same way I do. Perhaps, because we so self-righteously recycle, we are just a little less concerned about the volume of paper we use. If it isn't perfect, reprint it, or make copies for everyone. Heck, we'll just put the drafts and extras in the recycle bin.


Various critics have suggested that recycling may be the token environmental activity we do to make ourselves feel good. It is low effort, free or even worth some money in states with bottle deposits or good markets for collected materials, and appears to keep stuff out of the landfill. The real risk is in the assumption of recycling as THE solution. It is clear that in adopting the attitude that recycling can solve all our problems, we are ignoring the data that demonstrates recycling only addresses the tip of the iceberg. The rest of the iceberg, hidden below water, is our consumption. Recycling does not undo the impacts of production, and, recycling itself is seldom environmentally benign. The recovery of some materials can have serious environmental issues of its own.


It is difficult to have this discussion without seeming to bash recycling. Recycling is a key environmental activity. Yet, as with everything, it doesn't happen in a vacuum and just because something is “recycled” does not automatically mean it is the best solution or most environmentally friendly choice. To illustrate the impact of oversimplifying the benefits of recycling, I was at a meeting recently with a group of green builders and others interested in expanding green building programs. During the question and answer period, an experienced green builder asked, “In my latest project I'm not using any wood, do I get any bonus points for that?” A fair enough question perhaps, but one that is also indicative of the confusion that exists about various materials and their use. Is steel with a high percentage of recycled content a more environmentally friendly choice than wood? Evaluations using standard life cycle assessment techniques indicate that the answer to this question is clearly and unambiguously “no”! At some point we have to recognize that every purchase we make is like throwing rocks in a pond; it causes waves. The source of the material only impacts the size of the wave - it does not eliminate it.


Businesses and even the little Dovetail office, face the challenges of selecting materials on a daily basis. There is the constant temptation to simplify things with a few easy actions and a few broad rules. These approaches do provide some benefit. Implementing recycling programs is a good thing; increasing the recycled content of office paper is a great thing. But after these relatively obvious choices have been made, how do we all tackle the more complicated ones? The answer is: carefully, with diligence, and without preconceived notions of what makes something green.


Dr. Jeff Howe