Monday, January 9, 2012

Recycling Reconsidered

Here’s  an important new book just published by MIT Press. It builds a compelling case that “Recycling as we know it today generates the illusion of progress while allowing industry to maintain the status quo and place responsibility on consumers and local government.”  PPI will review in more detail in future blogs; in the meantime, below are the publisher’s blurb and several endorsements  (disclosure: I reviewed the book for MIT Press).
-- Bill Sheehan

Recycling  is widely celebrated as an environmental success story. The accomplishments of the recycling movement can be seen in municipal practice, a thriving private recycling industry, and widespread public support and participation. In the United States, more people recycle than vote. But, as Samantha MacBride points out in this book, the goals of recycling--saving the earth (and trees), conserving resources, and greening the economy--are still far from being realized. The vast majority of solid wastes are still burned or buried.

MacBride  argues that, since the emergence of the recycling movement in 1970, manufacturers of products that end up in waste have successfully prevented the implementation of more onerous, yet far more effective, forms of sustainable waste policy. Recycling as we know it today generates the illusion of progress while allowing industry to maintain the status quo and place responsibility on consumers and local government. Most disturbingly, it does so with the strong support of environmental social movements that defend recycling even as they grapple with its shortcomings.

MacBride  offers a series of case studies in recycling that pose provocative questions about whether the current ways we deal with waste are really the best ways to bring about real sustainability and environmental justice. MacBride does not aim to debunk or discourage recycling but to help us think beyond recycling as it is today. In the name of ecological citizenship, she challenges us to consider larger problems of solid waste, the global range of environmental threats, and policy alternatives that go beyond curbside collection of cans, bottles, and paper.

MIT Press  $27.00  (CLOTH)  312 pp.  ISBN-10:  0-262-01600-1   ISBN-13:  978-0-262-01600-1

About the Author

Samantha MacBride teaches at Columbia University’s School of Public and International Affairs and is a professional in local waste governance.


“With  a thoughtful and critical eye, this study deconstructs municipal recycling, sorting the valuable aspects from those that just ‘feel good’ and reveals the strategic tensions that arise when a social movement, the ‘zero waste’ recycling movement, aligns with a business sector, the recycling industry. With a comfortable mix of technical description, financial analysis and good story telling the book challenges the simple notions of glass and plastic recycling and ‘shared product responsibility.’ Recognizing the important role that private enterprise can play in reuse, recycling and composting, this book concludes that good government policy remains a critical force in driving a sustainable materials economy.”
Ken Geiser, Professor of Work Environment, Director, Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, University of Massachusetts, Lowell

 “Samantha  MacBride has produced an outstanding study that asks profound sociological questions about the way our recycling systems are organized. Her concept of ‘busy-ness’ is right on target: consumers, environmentalists, and governments are busy recycling and feeling good while the waste industry pursues profits, and the ultimate goals of sustainability and equity get lost in the shuffle. She demonstrates that the recycling movement itself is a big part of the problem, having never made it a priority to regulate, monitor, and focus on manufacturers’ waste, and blindly embracing the consumer as the center of a “can-do” ideology, to the neglect of troubling ecological and market realities. Drawing on her years of experience as a recycling professional, MacBride outlines bold and sensible policy recommendations for a just and sustainable recycling system and the broader materials economy. This book is a must-read for scholars, activists, and policy makers.
David Naguib Pellow, Don Martindale Professor of Sociology, University of Minnesota and author of Garbage Wars: The Struggle for Environmental Justice in Chicago
 “As  the title implies, Samantha MacBride’s Recycling Reconsidered takes a serious, timely, and unvarnished look at recycling in the United States. Her agenda is clearly utilitarian—not to convince us of the environmental virtues of recycling or to offer a cynical appraisal of why it doesn’t work but to ask thoughtful questions and make reasonable suggestions well beyond the often trite assessments that regularly appear in print. You can argue with her conclusions, but you cannot dismiss her data, her careful analysis, and her no-nonsense approach.”
Martin V. Melosi, author of The Sanitary City
Photo credit: MIT Press 

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