Over the weekend the New York Times’ John Tierney published “The Reign of Recycling,” his attempt to show that recycling is more sentiment than it is good environmental stewardship, much less, good business. I’ll have much more to say about the meat of his work soon, but for now I’d like to make one small point about context, and how Tierney twists it.
Early in his essay, Tierney offers up this:
“Here’s some perspective: To offset the greenhouse impact of one passenger’s round-trip flight between New York and London, you’d have to recycle roughly 40,000 plastic bottles, assuming you fly coach. If you sit in business- or first-class, where each passenger takes up more space, it could be more like 100,000.”
Now here’s the additional perspective that Tierney left out: in 2010, Americans consumed 42.6 billion plastic water bottles, alone, according to the Container Recycling Institute. That’s enough plastic water bottle waste to offset the greenhouse gases for 1,065,000 round-trips between London and New York in coach every year. If business or first class is desired, and you use Tierney’s methods, the numbers drop to 426,000 offsets.
And it just gets better. Bottled water sales grew 7.4% in the U.S. last year. Not only that, Americans use many, many other types of recyclable plastic bottles – including detergent bottles, by the millions (or billions?). In other words – many more hundreds of thousands of greenhouse gas offsets between London and New York!
Of course, not all of those bottles are actually collected for recycling. In the U.S., the rate is around 30%, annually (but growing). So we’re probably talking around 340,000 offsets for round-trip flights between New York and London. Which, to put it differently:
Americans recycle enough plastic water bottles every year to offset the carbon emissions generated by the entire population of Anaheim, California flying round-trip between New York and London, annually.
If we collect and recycle more bottles, that’s even more offsets (get to 400,000, and we’ve offset my hometown of Minneapolis). What could be better?
Now, I have no idea why Tierney left out this key context from his piece. Maybe he didn’t think to look it up. Or maybe, as I suspect, he realized it undermined his argument. Whatever the case, I find it representative of “The Reign of Recycling” – sloppy, deceptive, and lacking any kind of context for a reader not familiar with the recycling industry. I’ll have more to say soon.
[Thanks to Patty Moore of Moore Associates for the conversation that inspired this post.]