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The Theory of Relativity, Part 1

It’s all relative. No I’m not talking about some new in-breeders reality TV show. I’m talking how we view the world, how we talk about things, and how all of that impacts sustainability.

Nothing exists in a vacuum. There are alternatives. Whether something is good or bad, or the degree to which something is good or bad depends on what you compare it to. This is not a new idea. For eons, religions have understood this need for relativity. How can you tell how good your gods are if you don’t have devils or demons to show the alternative? Does Heaven sound as good if the alternative is not Hell?

I think this issue of relativity is something that needs to be addressed in the recycling and sustainability industry. Too often we throw around terms. We declare that something is sustainable, that something is “green,” that something will save money, or will save energy. Or conversely, we ask whether something is one of those things. But, too often, we fail to give context. The truthfulness of our statements or the answers to our questions may depend on what we compare something to. Context and alternatives matter.

Let’s look at an example outside the sustainability realm. Will a pair of jeans that is 20% off save you money? It depends. If the alternative is paying “full price” the same pair of jeans, then yes, the 20% off jeans will save you money. But what if the alternative is getting those same jeans for 50% less than that “full price” somewhere else? If that 50% off jean is your alternative, then the pair that is 20% off will actually cost you more money.

We have to be careful that we don’t get into “checklist” environmentalism. For example, is driving a hybrid car a “good thing?” According to many “how to green your life/business/school” checklists I have seen, you would automatically assume the answer is yes. But as with the jean analogy, it depends on the alternative. If your alternative is driving a mid-sized car with much worse fuel economy, then the answer is yes. If your alternative is walking or biking everywhere and you give that up to drive, then the answer is no. And that’s without even getting into all of the more-complicated discussions like life-cycle discussions about whether there are additional impacts in the manufacturing and distribution of one car vs. another, or psychological discussions about whether people drive further with a more fuel-efficient car because they view their driving as less impactful, even if they are using more gasoline as a result.

Finding the Right Comparison

When you do start looking at relativity, finding the right comparison is critical. In my opinion, we in the recycling industry really flubbed this one a while ago. We did a great job of comparing recycling to the alternative, but we used the wrong alternative.

Modern landfills are a vast improvement over the open dumps that preceded them. They provided a sanitary alternative to the vermin-attracting practice of dumping trash in the streets or in open dumps. Thus, diverting stuff from a landfill is only “good” if you are diverting it to an even better alternative. If you are diverting stuff from a landfill just to litter it on the ground or send it to an open dump, that diversion doesn’t provide the benefit that you might think it does, or that your promotions or metrics imply that it does.

As an example, it was shocking to me a few years ago when I found out that a student I was talking to was so determined to keep food waste out of the landfill, that he was dumping it loose at the edge of the woods right next to his dorm, presuming that animals would eat it. And surprise, surprise, there were significant pest control and exterminator issues at that dorm. Were those added pest control issues the positive alternative he was envisioning? Was the rat problem that was developing if the pest control issues had gone unchecked? Or had we so thoroughly and perhaps misguidedly vilified landfilling to the point that any alternative seemed better?

So what is the right comparison? Is recycling good because landfilling is bad? As engineering improvements are made to landfills (e.g. improved leachate capture or methane collection), such that landfills become “less bad,” does recycling become less good? The answer in my opinion is no. Recycling for most materials has never been good because landfilling or waste-to-energy is “bad.” Recycling of most materials has been good because it can provide feedstocks to manufacturers in a significantly less impactful way than extracting and processing virgin natural resources. For most materials, that is where the benefits from recycling lie. And it is because of that manufacturing-lifecycle-benefit that it makes far more sense to recycle many materials than to landfill them. In my opinion, for too many years, we have been using the wrong comparison and vilifying the wrong alternative. That is the reason that I love the EPA’s WARM model because it is the only widely-used waste-and-recycling metric that measures lifecycle impact. Yes it is still imperfect. Yes, I would love to see it better differentiate recycling something to its highest and best use (e.g. glass bottles back to glass bottles, office paper back to office paper) as opposed to less-than-best-use (e.g. glass to road base, or office paper to cereal boxes). Yes it only measures climate impacts as opposed to say water impacts, or habitat impacts. But WARM is a huge improvement over alternatives that only measure diversion tonnage.

When will we embrace relativity and start to really look at all the alternatives on a case by case basis? When I got into this field in the 1980’s, the mantra regarding trash was that there is no “away.” When will we focus that mantra on recycling as well? When will we stop blindly assuming that every ton diverted from a landfill or waste-to-energy facility ends up in a better alternative? How many more Basel Action Network (BAN) reports, or similar reports do we need, before we stop blindly assuming that every ton of material diverted overseas ends up in a better alternative than the landfill or waste to energy facility we are diverting it from? What percentage of that material ends up in open dumps, or other disposal options even less positive – alternatives that are a worse alternative than the sanitary landfills or waste-to-energy facilities from which materials are being diverted? I am in no way suggesting that I am opposed to the export of materials. There are a wide range of export options and from the info and evidence I have seen, I have seen as many stories of export markets doing amazing and innovative things as I have seen BAN horror stories. This is not just an export issue. There are plenty of domestic issues in which we are “diverting” stuff from sanitary landfills or waste-to-energy facilities only to find out it is burned or buried somewhere else. What I am opposed to are metrics, or analysis of those metrics, that don’t measure the reality of a situation whether foreign or domestic. When will we embrace relativity and really look closely at specific alternatives instead of blindly assuming that all “diversion” is inherently good. If we don’t, do we just give ammunition to the folks out there who oppose sustainability and recycling.

I often think back to a friend I had in the hazardous waste field. We were discussing a factory that appeared to have essentially distributed their hazardous waste as a pesticide to local landscapers and farmers. From the factory’s perspective they had achieved “zero waste.” They are a “waste diversion” success story. Yet, now all of those farms and fields have environmental contamination issues and the factory’s success is their headache. Is that the alternative we are looking for? Before any of us crows too loudly about our zero waste or diversion success stories, do we need to do some real soul searching to make sure that our programs are not creating some variation of the same theme?

Relativity can be hard. But in the end, I think we are all better for it. I think we have more credibility when we use terms like “more-sustainable” and “better” as opposed to “sustainable” and “good”. In the long run, I think we are better off comparing specific alternatives instead of relying on blanket assumptions. Relativity may be hard, but I think it’s worth it.

Check out part 2, here.

Written by

Roger Guzowski
Roger Guzowski

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