“Recycling Reconsidered: the Present Failure and Future Promise of Recycling in the United States” with Professor Samantha MacBride

Columbia University
May 11, 2011 at 7:00 PM, Faculty House

By many accounts, recycling is the most widely practiced form of environmentalism in the U.S., representing a success story for ecological action and a pragmatic means of making an individual difference in the face of global environmental problems.  In the U.S., recycling is a multi-million dollar industry, employing over one million people.  Yet recycling as we know it — that is, the curbside collection of cans, bottles, and paper from diligent citizens — succeeds in preventing only one third of all urban wastes from going to disposal.  Urban wastes are, in turn, only a tiny fraction of total solid wastes generated in the U.S., with the majority of disposal undertaken by manufacturing industries with little or no regulation or data gathering.  Despite the fact that recycling has flourished symbolically since the 1970’s, most materials, including toxic substances, make a linear cradle to grave journey through the economy.

This talk takes a critical look at the success of recycling as we know it, arguing that the practice, as currently configured, is not only deeply insufficient to solving environmental problems, but also serves to move more meaningful policy alternatives out of consideration.  Since 1970, producers, who control the majority of decisions around materials flows, have fostered recycling in its current form as a distractionary tactic to absorb citizen concern and need for action, and in this project, social movements have over time taken on an unwitting role in enabling the distraction to continue.  This talk challenges the way we think about recycling and in turn the role of social movements, business groups, and the state in confronting environmental problems of our day.
Speaker Biography:

Samantha MacBride teaches Environmental Politics, Policy and Management at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.  She has a Ph.D. in Sociology and an M.P.A. in Environmental Policy and Planning from New York University, and a B.A. in Biology from Johns Hopkins University.  Her forthcoming book, Recycling Reconsidered: the Present Failure and Future Promise of Recycling in the United States will be issued by MIT press later this year.  It examines the social construction of solid waste problems and solutions in the United States over time, arguing that recycling as we know it today is insufficient to solving such problems and serves to distract concerned citizens and social movements from more meaningful policy alternatives.  Samantha’s current research is on the contested politics of municipal organic waste management in the U.S. and Canada.  She is interested in how landfill gas recovery; industrial-scale composting and anaerobic digestion, and conversion technologies are differently understood and advocated for in relation to threats of climate change by social movements, business sectors, and the state.


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