Barry Commoner is the father of the modern environmental movement. Over
the last 20 years, he has consistently led the way with clear thinking.
His early book, THE CLOSING CIRCLE (NY: Knopf, 1971), is still the best
introduction to the interconnected problems of our environment.
Now Dr. Commoner has once again provided leadership, giving us a way to
think about the problem of municipal trash. In a speech March 4, 1989
to the New Jersey Environmental Federation, Dr. Commoner outlined our
Our trash problems started with landfills. They are a non-renewable
resource; once that hole in the ground is filled up, you have to go
find another, more expensive one, and they're in short supply.
Suddenly, a new, powerful industry has arrived on the scene claiming a
solution to our trash problems: the incinerator industry. Where did
this powerful new industry come from? Dr. Commoner points out that this
is really not a new industry at all--it's merely the nuclear power
people in sheep's clothing, selling new machines. Combustion
Engineering, Westinghouse, Ogden-Martin... they WERE the nuclear
industry, but they haven't been able to sell a new nuclear power plant
for the last 11 years, so now they're selling trash incinerators.
Incinerators have one important feature in common with nuclear power
plants: they produce pollution that didn't exist before the plant was
switched on. Nuclear plants produce radioactivity, which no one knows
how to dispose of safely, and trash incinerators produce toxic ash
laden with dioxin and with heavy metals, which no one knows how to
dispose of safely.
There are only three ways to deal with trash: don't make it (which Dr.
Commoner calls "the best way"), recycle it, or incinerate it. Once
trash is created, the question becomes, which is the best method for
handling it--best in terms of getting rid of the trash, best for the
environment, most affordable, and best for the economy of the local
Dr. Commoner described two studies his organization has completed in
the past two years, in Buffalo, NY, and in East Hampton, Long Island
(New York). In East Hampton, one hundred families conducted a pilot
study for 10 weeks; they separated their trash into four components:
food garbage, paper, bottles and cans, and other (nonrecyclables,
mainly plastics). The East Hampton study showed that ordinary people,
using existing technology could recycle 84% of their trash. (See RHWN
Dr. Commoner pointed out that Seattle, Washington, has achieved 60%
recycling, and they are not even trying to compost their food wastes.
"So it is clear that recycling can substitute for incineration to do
the only thing that incineration is good at, which is to get rid of 70%
of the trash. You can get rid of more of it by recycling," Dr. Commoner
told his audience of 350.
The East Hampton study also showed that recycling is 35% cheaper than
incineration. Even if the toxic ash from the incinerator is not shipped
to an expensive hazardous waste landfill but is landfilled cheaply in a
municipal dump, incineration is still 35% more expensive than
recycling. Furthermore, the Buffalo study showed that recycling is much
more beneficial to the economy of the local community. If a community
purchases an incinerator, the money is paid from the local economy to a
large, multi-national corporation. But an intensive recycling program
creates jobs for local people. In the case of Buffalo, the local
economy would receive $12 million more per year from a recycling
program than it would from an incinerator, even though the total cost
of the recycling program would be less than the total cost of
Finally, recycling is environmentally superior to recycling not because
of the environmental effects of the recycling operation vs. the
environmental effects of the incinerator but because of all the
pollution that is avoided when recycled materials are substituted for
raw materials. A glass bottle is originally made from sand and lime;
the sand is melted to make the glass. A bottle made from recycled glass
uses much less energy than does a bottle made from sand. The same is
true for aluminum; an aluminum object made from recycled aluminum
creates much less pollution in its manufacture than does an aluminum
object made from raw bauxite ore which must be processed to extract new
aluminum. It is the avoided pollution from processing raw materials
that gives recycling its important environmental advantage over
Regarding the market for recyclables, Dr. Commoner points out that the
manufacturers of paper, steel and aluminum save money by using recycled
stock, so they will purchase as much of it as they can RELIABLY ACQUIRE
ON A REGULAR BASIS. These manufacturers need a guaranteed steady supply
of recycled materials before they can gear up manufacturing processes
reliant upon recycled materials. That is why community recycling
programs will have to be mandated--communities will have to pass laws
requiring participation in recycling programs--so the markets for
recycled goods can be stabilized.
Dr. Commoner said his study of East Hampton had shown that you could
give the recycled materials away free and still handle the town's trash
more cheaply than you could incinerate it.
A major impediment to recycling programs is state laws, like the one
passed by New Jersey, requiring all counties to establish recycling
programs with modest goals such as recycling 25% of the trash. Dr.
Commoner asks, What will happen to the other 75%? It will be
Dr. Commoner points out 80% of our trash can be recycled or incinerated
but NOT BOTH. Thus a program that sets a goal of 25% recycling will
essentially guarantee that 75% of the trash will be incinerated. It
will take 20 to 30 years to amortize (pay off) the cost of the
incinerators, so during that period of time, the community will be
prevented from establishing serious, far-reaching recycling programs.
"I tell you, the New Jersey law is a sly way of insuring that
incinerators will be built," Dr. Commoner told his audience March 4.
Dr. Commoner then put the trash problem into a larger framework. He
pointed out that Washington-based environmental groups (but not grass
roots groups) often say they favor incinerators "with proper controls."
Dr. Commoner says this is how we got into the nuclear power mess to
begin with--people accepting a lousy technology, hoping to make it
acceptable by putting expensive controls on it. He said it's time we
realized environmental pollution is like an incurable disease--our only
hope is to prevent it.
Environmental pollution begins in the system of industrial and
agricultural production. This means that we have to control the system
of production, Dr. Commoner said.
He said the grass roots environmental movement "exemplifies the cutting
edge of the environmental movement." He credited the movement with
stopping the onslaught of the nuclear/incineration industry by asking
for facts, seeking the truth and insisting "not in my back yard."
[New material added May 3, 1989:] Preventing pollution requires us to
make the right technological choices. In the past decade we have seen a
90% reduction in DDT, a 95% reduction in lead in our air, major
decreases in PCBs and major decreases in strontium-90 because "in each
case, we stopped putting the stuff into the environment," Dr. Commoner
said. "It's as simple as that. When you try to put controls on, it
doesn't work," he said, pointing out that the average reduction in
other pollutants--those we haven't banned but have tried to control--
has been only 14%. He pointed out that the major global problems--
carbon dioxide causing the greenhouse effect, and CFCs
(chlorofluorocarbons) causing destruction of the earth's ozone shield--
can only be solved by stopping production of carbon dioxide and CFCs.
Dr. Commoner is director of the Center for the Biology of Natural
Systems (CBNS), Queens College, Flushing, NY 11367; phone (718) 670-
Descriptor terms: barry commoner; east hampton, ny; composting;
recycling; studies; incineration; bans; ddt; pcbs; strontium-90;
nuclear power; nuclear industry; incineration industry; waste hauling
industry; buffalo, ny; msw;