Don't Buy These Myths

Eleven misconceptions that make us slaves to desire

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The Care and Feeding of Stuff
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Don't Buy These Myths
Eleven misconceptions that make us slaves to desire

My Not-So-Simple Resume
Linda Tatelbaum reveals her path to a simple life

Q. What do all previous civilizations that practiced recycling have in common?
A. They're extinct.

Before you pat yourself on the back after hauling your bin of newspapers to the curb for recycling, think about the numbers?all the numbers. As recyclers, most Americans are doing just fine: We currently recycle about 27 percent of our waste, a vast improvement since 1960, when it was 7 percent. Between 1970 and 1994, paper recycling went from 15 percent (6 million tons) to 35 percent (28 million). So what's the problem? Well, during that same period, the amount of paper we dumped into landfills increased by 14.7 million tons.

In Use Less Stuff: Environmental Solutions for Who We Really Are (Fawcett Columbine, 1998), authors Robert Lilienfeld and William Rathje claim that we're not the first civilization to pin our hopes on recycling; we're just the latest in a very long line of well-intentioned but misdirected consumers. Consider our predecessors.

Ur, Sumeria (now Iraq). 4,000 years ago. With the advent of permanent settlements, the squandering that characterized hunters and gatherers declined, and recycling caught on. Ur residents reused metal utensils and weapons, anything of wood, even broken pottery. They spruced up deteriorating temples and palaces. But they also celebrated their prosperity by creating fancier ones?the last one built was 100 feet long and 80 feet high, and sat atop a 50-foot platform. Productivity was high, workers prospered, farmers overplanted fields to feed them, soil fertility suffered, and Ur died.

Yucatan Peninsula. Ninth century C.E. Classic Mayans worked broken, chipped tools into new shapes. They never razed a building; they added a thick outer shell instead. They also lived ostentatiously and erected grand monuments. Once again, productivity soared and farmers overplanted?and the Mayans fell to ruin.

Even the United States had its bout with unsuccessful recycling. In 1942, citizens responded admirably to the war effort's scrap drives. They were, in fact, overzealous; the resulting wastepaper glut pushed collection costs too high, and the War Production Board finally asked people to stop saving.

We haven't learned yet; we just keep on generating. In 1995, after recycling, we discarded 152 million tons of waste?nearly twice what we discarded in 1960. And about those papers: One-third of today's landfilled municipal solid waste is paper, more than any other category.

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