Vol. CLIII, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Recycling: Ultimately wasteful

In 1996, John Tierney wrote in the New York Times Magazine, “Americans have embraced recycling as a transcendental experience, an act of moral redemption. We’re not just reusing our garbage; we’re performing a rite of atonement for the sin of excess.”

This is the article that Bob Biles, who works for Whitman’s physical plant as a landscape specialist, said started him down the road toward questioning the value of recycling.

“What confounds me the most is not really knowing what the impact of our recycling is on the greater environment, and if it’s really a positive impact or not,” Biles said. “You have to ask yourself, do we save more energy by recycling, or are we actually using more energy?”

Good question. Apart from the familiar feel-good effect that comes with recycling, how much do Whitman students actually know about the inner workings of the recycling industry, an industry that has grown since the 1970s from grassroots to global enterprise? Apart from being expensive (up to four or five times more expensive than traditional waste removal, according to Biles), processing recycled materials often entails shipping it thousands of miles away, sometimes even to other continents.

“There’s no way…to know where all of this is going,” a news anchor revealed in a recent episode of CBS’s “60 Minutes.” “The recycling industry is exploding and, as it turns out, some so-called recyclers are shipping the waste overseas.”

Think about it: If our recycled items have the potential to start out in Walla Walla and end up in rural China, for instance, how much energy is being to used in the process of transportation alone?   Bring in labor conditions in developing nations, and recycling starts to take on darker undertones.   Sure, recycling may seem like the right thing to do 100 percent of the time: but is it?

“Most people think, ‘Oh, I put my newspaper in the little bin,’ or ‘I put my soda bottle in the little bin, I’ve recycled, I’ve done my part to make the world a better place.’ And that’s where their thought process ends,” Biles said.   “They don’t go on to think, ‘Well, now what happens to that? Where does it go and how much energy is spent in the process to turn that into something else, and what impact does it have on the greater environment?’ None of that is thought about.”

Even if recycling certain materials like aluminum sometimes has a positive environmental effect, how much fiscal sense does it really make to recycle: as Whitman currently does: over 300,000 pounds of refuse per year?   According to Biles, not much, especially in a small community like Walla Walla.

“The students have a lot of ideology about what would be best in a perfect world, but in the real world where we work with dollars and cents and time and labor, it’s just more efficient to throw it away sometimes, and cheaper,” Biles said.

Because Walla Walla is geographically isolated, Biles added, our recycled products must travel approximately 300 miles to reach the markets where they are generally consolidated. Regular trash, on the other hand (and Whitman produces about 1 million pounds of it annually) can be processed locally in environmentally-safe landfills.

Recycling may be a quick and easy way to feel like you’re making a difference, but take a look at the big picture: are you?

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