Office Christmas parties have few redeeming qualities. I maintain that the world would be a better place if the practice were done away with completely. I do, however, have a rule about never turning down free food. While standing amongst co-workers this past Christmas, plotting how I could subtly steal the entire tray of cannolis, some of our colleagues from Britain inquired as to where the recycling was.
One co-worker pointed to the holiest of holies, while beaming with unjustifiable pride. Mildly surprised to find that we Yankees observed the same religious rites, our British colleagues began inquiring as to the depth of our devotion. Anyone can recycle bottles, cans and stacks of printer paper, but did we recycle cardboard? The American congregation was unsure.
Bemused, but only there for the food, I endeavored to stay out of the conversation. I remembered Clark Wiseman’s calculations showing that if the United States were to continue generating garbage at current rates for 1,000 years, and put it all into a single landfill 100 yards deep, it would occupy a space of 30 miles on each side. This hardly seems a great imposition for a nation of 3.8 million square miles.
I bit my tongue as the self-flagellation of my co-workers continued. We learned that the British are far from perfect in their devoutness, and recycle only a fraction of their waste when compared to the Scandinavian countries. And yet the guilt of my co-workers would not be easily assuaged. The United States needed to take recycling more seriously, they all agreed. After all, we’re running out of space.
I laughed audibly, drawing the skeptical gazes of the faithful. I looked up from my plate, which was at this stage suffering from a distinct lack of cannolis, and decided it was best to elaborate.
“Have any of you ever driven laterally across Kansas?” I asked. Several smiles appeared in the room, identifying my fellow recycling heathens. “We’re clearly not running out of space.” The point was granted by all in the room, and the subject quickly changed. An awkward tension hung in the air for several minutes as some tried to continue small talk.
If this were truly a disagreement about efficiency or resource management, there would be no need for hurt feelings in response to a dissenting opinion. My crime was far more sinister. I questioned the instrument of their redemption and the source of their smug moral superiority.
Like most religions, the Green movement attempts to define codes of right behavior. It contains an original sin: Existing. The battle against entropy requires the consumption of resources and the production of waste. These actions wrack the environmentally conscious with tremendous guilt, which can only be assuaged with an act of contrition.
The ritual is simple enough, though lacking the entertainment value of firewalking. Sort your waste into separate bins, rinse the recyclable items clean, and put a can down at the curb weekly. Now that you have “made a difference” you can go about your day knowing that you are better than most people. After all, think of all of the trees you’ve saved. One doesn’t need to guess at the number, as it can be readily determined.
It is commonly believed that increased wastepaper recycling will save trees, and presumably result in a larger growing stock of forests in the long run. The adjustments that can be expected to occur in forest management cast serious doubt on this conclusion. About one-third of the pulpwood for paper comes from residues of other wood products, the production of which will be negligibly affected by recycling. The remainder mostly consists of pulpwood trees, largely plantation-grown softwoods planted in orderly rows and mechanically harvested as a 20-year rotation crop. Their small size—indicated by a fiber yield of less than 200 pounds per tree—contributes to the immense numbers of trees cited by recycling advocates as being “saved” from the woodsman’s axe. The notion that stately old trees are used for paper production is erroneous; their value as lumber or plywood far exceeds their pulpwood value. Increased recycling will result in the conversion to agricultural uses of some plantation forest lands in the same way that a reduction in the demand for bread will reduce wheatlands, the possible result being a net reduction in the nation’s forest inventory.
None. You saved no trees.
Recycling is not inherently foolish. Many companies profitably recycled things like paper before governments began mandating the activity. And there are certainly environments (like a spacecraft) where the benefits of recycling vastly outweigh the costs. But what should be a cost-benefit analysis performed by individuals in a market place has become an article of faith enforced with social norms,rather than reason and evidence.
This has become a bit of a running gag when I’m at friend’s houses. I ask where the trash is so that I can throw away the can of soda I am holding, only to have my friend look down with disapproval, raise one figure into the air, and, with a pained expression on their face say, “Actually, we recycle.” Their concern for my soul is written clearly across their faces. Will this be the moment where I accept the redemptive powers of recycling into my heart?
“That’s neat.” I say while throwing the can in the trash. “Now let me tell you about Scientology.”
I’m a big hit at parties.