Recycling Reconsidered: A must-read text for discard studies

If I could only recommend one text in discard studies, it would be Recycling Reconsidered  by Samantha MacBride (2011, MIT Press). It has everything a good discard studies text–or indeed a good mystery novel–requires: complex systems, power relations, efforts to make change that are foiled or only partially successful, and a charismatic lead actor we think we know all about at the start, but by the end is revealed to be something else entirely (in this case, the charming protagonist is recyclables).


Recycling Reconsidered is not the first book-length treatment of the paradox of recycling that considers how (and why) current systems actually maintain systems of environmental harm rather than alleviate them. In 1997 Frank Ackerman, an economist at Tuffs University, wrote Why Do We Recycle?, an in-depth economic analysis of recycling that found the economic and environmental arguments for municipal curb-side recycling did not always, or even often, hold up to empirical scrutiny. MacBride’s book updates of this kind of work a decade and a half later with an important addition: she considers power and materiality in her analysis. There have also bee some long-form journalistic texts were written between Ackerman and MacBride (Royte 2007, Rogers 2013), but no other text has the same prolonged engagement with both the minutiae and overarching system of recycling, making Recycling Reconsidered the current text on recycling.

MacBrides’ exceptional maneuvering between detailed case studies and the Big Picture comes largely from a long career spent managing municipal recycling. When she wrote Recycling Reconsidered, MacBride was Deputy Director for Recycling for the New York City Department of Sanitation. After receiving her PhD in sociology and a subsequent professorship in a School of Public Affairs, MacBride decided to return to the New York City Department of Sanitation as the Director of Research, where she works today. MacBride’s research leads to some potentially surprising conclusions in her work (surprising only because they fall outside of the truisms and discourses of popular environmentalism and the recycling movement). For instance, Recycling Reconsidered problematizes reuse economies because they do not scale and so do not significantly impact waste flows (126-137); she sees the recycling movement itself is a big part of the waste problem, having never made it a priority to regulate, monitor, and focus on manufacturers’ waste (6-14); and she recommends that “paper and metal be the only materials collected in commingled curbside” recycling (217). In each case, these conclusions and recommendations follow from a dedication to materiality and looking at entire systems, rather than instances, of waste. MacBride, who makes policies, testifies at hearings, and creates new programs and flows for waste in one of the most populous cities in North America, is in large part what brings her to the novel conclusions that run against the grain of nearly every other popular and environmental discourse about waste and recycling. Even if you aren’t interested in her arguments (or they rub you the wrong way because they ride roughshod over values you hold dear), her methods alone are worth taking seriously.

MacBride, like many before her (Royte 2007, Ackerman 1997, McDonough and Braungart 2010, Rogers 2013) starts with a simple premise: municipal recycling is not good for the environment. She argues that it “has next to zero impact on resource conservation measured in global scales and delivers only weak results in terms of pollution reduction or energy savings” (2011, 8). This statement is well documented through other work that investigates how recycling requires high expenditures of energy (Kraussman, Gingrich, Eisenmenger, et al. 2010) and virgin materials (McDonough and Braungart 2010), produces pollutants, creates products that are “down-cycled” because they are not as robust as their predecessors, (McDonough and Braungart 2010, 56-60), and of the fifteen to thirty percent of recyclables that are retrieved from the waste stream, “almost half” are buried or burned due to contamination or market fluctuations that devalue recyclables over virgin materials (Rogers 2013, 176-179). Most importantly, recycling infrastructure creates a framework where disposables become naturalized commodities instead of foregrounding waste redesign, reduction, or most importantly, elimination. The question MacBride asks is how municipal recycling continues to be a stable and stabilizing infrastructure despite these facts.

Denaturalizing waste regimes–what makes some forms of waste and waste management more logical, desirable, moral, and even seemingly inevitable than others– is one of the main tasks of discard studies. As consumers, we encounter waste everyday, and so we have a tacit knowledge about trash. But our familiarity usually ends at the bin, and only extends into processes of waste management as far as popular discourse will take us. Yet discourses about waste miss most of the complex networks involved in creating, managing, moving, storing, and interring waste. There is an entire genre of discard studies that takes the “magic” out of the municipal solid waste system both in terms of where waste goes (Lepawsky 2014, Reno 2009, Zimring 2009) and where it comes from in the first place (Slade 2009, Hawkins 2015).


Recycling Reconsidered asks how a massively ineffective but ubiquitously celebrated system of curb-side recycling is maintained despite—and because of—its inability to reach its goals of product recovery and environmental sustainability. One of the main arguments of the book is that a network of social groups, from extractive and manufacturing industries that make disposable to broad alliances and formal organizations within the “recycling movement” (16), has aligned to support municipal recycling even though it is neither environmentally sustainable nor often profitable enough to support itself without subsidies or alignment with more profitable waste management systems like landfilling. These alliances, she argues, are heavily supported by extractive and manufacturing industries through lobbying, testimony at policy hearings, financial investments in recycling education and infrastructure, and through the proliferation of pro-recycling discourse. By refocusing waste so that “waste” refers to municipal, rather than industrial waste, means that “sustainable waste management” refers to municipal recycling, rather than elimination or reduction of disposables or industrial responsibility for recycling. In this way powerful industries create what MacBride calls a “diversion” from alternative avenues and concepts, with an emphasis on “busyness” that keeps civic society working at small scale, consumer-focused change that does not threaten the status quo.

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This alignment of actors towards diversion and busyness is the exercise of power. Throughout the text, MacBride criticizes the recycling movement for over-focusing “on the individual consumer, the local scale of economy and governance, and a global realm that is only vaguely defined” (4), resulting in a waste management system “individual responsibility, voluntaristic self-governance, and subnational legislation,” (222). “Mirroring these emphases,” she argues, “has been a preference for consensus over conflict and an implicit theory of social change rooted in notions of education and moral/psychological growth rather than in state regulation or structural reform” (4). The result is that waste management systems, even though they include massive networks of actors, objects, and scales, constantly refocus attention and action at small scales and municipal and consumer responsibility, effectively obfuscating other scales of actions and actors as well as a whole host of materials in the industrial, manufacturing, extractive side of the network. Not surprisingly, the majority of waste research inside and outside of discard studies are also focused on small scale, small action waste.

New-York-Styrofoam-BanFor example, starting July 1, 2015, New York City banned Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) foam articles and polystyrene loose fill packaging, colloquially referred to as Styrofoam. The city argued that polystyrene “was neither environmentally effective nor economically feasible” (Mueller 2015, A21). By January, the ban had been overturned by Justice Margaret A. Chan of the State Supreme Court in Manhattan after “the Restaurant Action Alliance, along with a group of manufacturers [including Dart Container Corporation], recyclers and restaurants, sued the city in April to stop the ban. They said it was in fact possible to recycle the containers in a way that cut down on landfill additions and saved the city money” (Mueller 2015, A21). Though the initial ban was premised on a wide range of environmental issues, including the escape of polystyrene from waste infrastructure into waterways and the siting of landfills and other waste infrastructure near communities, the debates brought forward by industry focused exclusively on recycling, and a large part of the overturn was because Dart recycling said it “would buy and install new sorting machines that it said would recover more than 90 percent of the foam” from the waste stream (Mueller 2015, A21), which has never been done before, partially because EPS is impossible to recycle when it is co-mingled with other materials, which is inevitable in curb-side pick up (MacBride 2011, 181). Other issues that had originally been on the table to prompt the ban were noticeably absent in debates about the overturn, and the very possibility of recycling, no matter how effective, profitable, or probable, dominated the discussion about whether the ban was legitimate or not.

Focusing on recycling as the keystone of environmental action around waste has the same ends of focusing on “uncertainty” in toxicology or climate change models: it diverts attention and discourse away from action on large-scale environmental issues. It allows the status quo to continue: “Lobbying, influencing the media, and other discursive tactics take place so that certain matters never come up for a vote, laws are not passed, options are not considered” (12). MacBride’s analysis of the main social groups, institutions, and actors and how power is exercised between and across them shows “how some kinds of interactions more or less succeed in stabilising and reproducing themselves: how it is that they overcome resistance and seem to become ‘macrosocial’; how it is that they seem to generate the effects such power, fame, size, scope or organization” (Law 1992, 380), even when they do not necessarily serve the interests of all actors invested in them.

So what is left out by this diversion? Where should we situate this system and our research? The short answer is: industrial solid waste and its associated practices. This argument to move waste intervention “upstream” is not new. I’d say it’s at the core of every significantly successful waste intervention, from banning plastic microbeads to phasing out CFC refrigerators. The value of Recycling Reconsidered is not that it delves deeply into industrial waste, though its chapter on the shadowy metrics of industrial waste reporting is some of the best I’ve read (comparable to Wynn’s work on the nonsense of hazardous waste classifications, 1987). Instead, it’s in the argument that makes it imperative that we look to industrial solid waste as a crucial and underdeveloped place for research and reading in discard studies. It’s a text that sets the agenda for research in the field.   



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