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NCRA Response To “The Reign of Recycling”, NY Times Op-Ed, 10/3/15

In John Tierney’s Op-Ed piece, “The Reign of Recycling,” the author asks, is recycling wasteful? For us at the Northern California Recycling Association, “waste” is what happens when discarded materials are not recognized for the economic value they represent as the feedstock for new products. The answer to his question is quite simple: No, recycling is not wasteful; but given his inclination, Tierney has ensured that this is the impression we are left with. Let’s take a closer look at some of his assertions:

  • Recycling certain materials does not make sense because they don’t offset enough greenhouse gas emissions. Tierney reports that a diverting a ton of food waste results in nearly a ton of greenhouse gas emissions and three tons of glass has roughly the same effect. Why therefore does it not make sense to recycle them? There are over 35 billion glass beverage containers and 40 million tons of food waste generated annually. Diverting even a small portion of the equivalent tons of greenhouse gas emissions would make a lot of environmental sense.
  • Recycling 40,000 water bottles only offsets a roundtrip ticket from London to New York, so why bother? When you consider Americans discarded 42.6 billion water bottles in 2010, somehow 40,000 doesn’t seem like such a big number anymore. In fact as Josh Minter of the blog Shanghai Scrap points out, recycling all the water bottles we generate annually would save the equivalent of over 1 million roundtrips of the same distance. Suddenly, the act of throwing water bottles in the recycling bin – instead of the black bin – doesn’t seem like such a hardship after all.
  • Recycling is economically ineffective. To speak to the economics of recycling, I’d like to challenge the fundamental assumption that recycling should pay for itself. When labeled as “garbage”, we were willing to pay for it to be disposed of. In most communities, solid waste management is considered a governmental responsibility akin to maintaining roads and power lines. Now dubbed “recycling,” these materials are expected to cover the costs of collection and processing. Why? Recycling has an environmental benefit that keeps valuable resources in the commodity stream and protects future generations from dwindling natural resources. And unlike what Tierney reports, there are plenty of examples when recycling is cheaper than landfilling, especially when the costs of capping old landfills, controlling their toxic effluents, and the costly endeavor of siting a new landfill are incorporated Just as we would forgo other commodities such as coffee, pork or oil in times of market fluctuation, so should we not forgo recycling due to the inevitable ebbs and flows of commodities markets.

Instead of only looking at the costs of recycling, why not require manufactures to make product that are more easily recyclable? Furthermore, why not utilize reusable beverage containers, especially for glass as Canada and Europe do?  Why not develop more recycling infrastructure in the U.S to shelter against the volatility of global markets? The Northern California Recycling Association, a 37 year old recycling trade association working to promote recycling and Zero Waste, welcomes the opportunity to provide an alternative viewpoint to that of Mr. Tierney and the landfill industry he seems to be supporting.



Laura McKaughan, President, NCRA

NCRA is a 501(c)6 non-profit trade organization of recycling businesses, community groups, municipalities and individuals. Our mission is to promote waste reduction, reuse, salvaging, recycling and composting as vital tools for resource and energy conservation and as cost-effective, environmentally sound methods of disposing of discarded materials.
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Boat Rocker – Bag It Movie Monster

Founded in 1978, the majority of our members are located in Northern California. Boat rockers, we are active locally, regionally, state-wide and nationally depending on what needs to be done.

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