The Paper Chase

A <i>Mother Jones</i> ‘internal’ investigation

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It was only a matter of time before Mother Jones, “the investigative magazine,” found itself the focus of an investigation. Well, it happened, and it ain’t pretty.

That’s right. Mother Jones, responsible for reports on such heady environmental concerns as coral reef devastation and corporate pollution, never bothered to monitor its own impact on the planet. Now a covert HomePlanet sting operation has uncovered a rather embarrassing truth: The paper trail in Mother Jones’ so-called office recycling program leads straight to the landfill.

“We were so busy digging up trash on everyone else that we forgot to look at our own,” says one Mother Jones editor who asked not to be identified for fear his name would be moved down the masthead. “You’re not really going to print this, are you?”

U.S. office workers generate more than 12 million tons of wastepaper each year and toss enough to fill nearly 20 Sears Towers. But it won’t do to stick out a few bins and hope for the best. How can you ensure your office recycling program isn’t a case of pulp fiction? With Mother Jones, it just took a bit of detective work.

At Mother Jones, all “wet” trash (i.e., anything food-related, or paper contaminated with goopy stuff) is placed in one bin, and “dry” trash (paper, including cardboard, magazines, newspapers, and colored stock) is placed either in individual office wastebaskets or in a big trash can near the copy machine. Janitors then consolidate the paper—a significant amount given that the magazine uses 40,000 sheets of white paper a month—nightly into one large bin. When the bin is full, building maintenance staff contact Paper Rush, a local recycler, to pick it up.

To test this system, brightly colored papers marked with large black X’s were stealthily placed in the recycling bin. When the consolidation bin was checked the next day, the paper wasn’t there. Was it being trashed? HomePlanet repeated the test, then, at midnight, searched the two dumpsters in the alley behind the building. There, the mystery was solved: Amongst the cappuccino cups, soggy croutons, hair balls, and other workaday leftovers, was the test paper.

Turns out the janitors were throwing all the paper away. Further questioning revealed that Paper Rush had retrieved paper from the building a mere three times in 1997. (Paper Rush later revised its numbers, telling a Mother Jones fact-checker it had visited 16 times.)

Who’s at fault? The building maintenance guy blames the janitorial company. “They should spend more time training,” he says. The building manager adds that the tenants are to blame. “It’s really been like pulling teeth getting the tenants and janitorial staff to do what they’re supposed to do,” she says. The tenants blame building management for changing recycling schemes and janitorial companies faster than Imelda Marcos changes shoes.

Amid all the finger-pointing, one thing is clear: The janitors, who are hardworking and diligent, simply don’t know what to do. They get their instructions from their employer, a janitorial company contracted by the building. The janitorial company gets its instructions from building maintenance, which gets its instructions from the building manager. All involved promise to clean up the confusion. Funny how a little investigation can motivate people.

Case closed, except for the question of bottles and cans. It turns out that glass and aluminum actually do get recycled. A fellow who works in building maintenance gives them to his nephew to “teach him about money.” This is good, both for the nephew and the environment, because people who work in the six-story building don’t generate enough bottles and cans to make it worthwhile for a recycling company to pick them up.

Still, when it comes to recycling paper, Mother Jones isn’t the only sham artist. Just look at Congress. Although 94 percent of House offices boast paper recycling programs, most of the 2,500 tons of paper the House uses each year ends up in the landfill. This became public last February when the House’s custodial workers had to sift through garbage to find important newspaper clippings mistakenly trashed. In response, Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.) has introduced legislation to make recycling a mandatory House practice (it’s now voluntary). He says the House potentially could make thousands of dollars from selling used paper to recyclers. In 1996 it made a paltry $7. “That is just embarrassing,” Farr says.

Bank of America has long been profiting from paper recycling. In 1995, its 90,000 employees, working in thousands of buildings across the nation, recycled more than 12,000 tons. “It’s a revenue generator,” says recycling program manager Halina Wojnicz, adding that there’s a long chain of command to keep the recycling legit. “You monitor the sites, reports, revenues, volumes,” she says. “You look into the trash.”

You also have to close the loop. That means buying paper with recycled content. “It won’t work if no one buys the products,” says Sharon Oxley, director of the national Recycling at Work Campaign. Oxley advises companies to avoid recycling fiascoes by communicating with building managers and clearly delegating responsibilities.

But if something smells rotten, she adds, root it out. “Stay late. Go undercover. Find out if [paper] is really being recycled.” And while you’re doing so, wear protective body armor and nose clips. You’ll need them.

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We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

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