Dear NYT Editors:
When the CEO of Waste Management, one of the largest haulers and landfill operators in the world, serves as the sole industry representative consulted about the future of recycling, readers can rightfully suspect they’re not getting the full story. In John Tierney’s Op-Ed piece, “The Reign of Recycling,” the irony of the question, “Is recycling wasteful?”, is that “waste” is what happens when discarded materials are not appreciated for the value they represent to our economy as the building blocks for new products.
The answer to his question is quite simple: No, recycling is not wasteful, but given his way, Tierney will do what he can to ensure that’s where it’s headed. Instead of cherry-picking “facts” that downplay the significance of recycling 10 of billions of beverage containers or the impact of avoiding thousands of tons of greenhouse gases being emitted through recycling food scraps, he implies it would be better to throw them out because it takes too much time to sort them!
Why not call for products that are more easily recyclable or made from component parts to aid in the recycling process? Why not build more recycling infrastructure within the U.S. to avoid the volatility of global markets?
The Northern California Recycling Association, a 37 year old recycling trade association working to promote waste diversion, recycling and Zero Waste, welcomes the opportunity to provide an alternative viewpoint painting a truer picture of what is happening in the recycling movement than that offered by Mr. Tierney and the landfill industry he seems to be supporting.
The Northern California Recycling Association (NCRA) appreciates that Fortune’s September 3 article
“The American recycling business is a mess: Can Big Waste fix it?” highlighted the challenges posed to the overall recycling industry by the cyclical global downturn in commodity prices. The article also correctly diagnosed the problems with the prevalent single-stream curbside recycling method. We would like to respond to your statement that “the business of recycling is due for a paradigm shift” by proffering ideas that advocate for just that:
Recycling is Not Free: The value of recyclables does not cover the entire cost to collect recyclables at the curb and separate them at a processing facility. This is especially true now that global markets for recyclable commodities are depressed. However, just because curbside recycling isn’t free, doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. NCRA firmly believes that the benefits of recycling far outweigh the costs, and would encourage customers and communities to keep recycling even when it costs more.
Drop It Off, Take it Back: An alternative to paying hauling companies more to collect and separate recyclables is to develop systems that encourage consumers to separate their own recyclables and transport them to local recycling centers or back to the retail stores where they bought the original products.
More Deposits, More Returns: NCRA supports “bottle bills” and similar legislation that provide consumers with a financial incentive to recycle. Deposit programs can help fund curbside recycling programs and recycling centers and can be applied to many more materials than just bottles and cans.
Beyond Recycling, Zero Waste: Recycling is just one part of the solution. Ultimately we need to strive for Zero Waste. This means designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them.
Re-design, Re-manufacture: As mentioned in your article, one method to improve recyclables commodities markets is to require manufactures to utilize recycled materials in their products. Additionally, Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which requires manufacturers to take responsibility for recycling their products after use, has to potential to incentivize product redesign resulting in more easily recycled goods.
Organics Landfill Ban: Another strategy is to ban certain materials from disposal, either at the landfill or the curb, and then allow the market to provide alternatives to disposal. Ultimately, all organic materials (food scraps, yard trimmings, paper, wood, etc.) should be banned from disposal in landfills, in order to prevent leaking methane gas into the atmosphere and to return valuable nutrients to the soil in the form of compost and mulch.
NCRA encourages Fortune to publish follow-up articles on recycling and Zero Waste. As you are aware, many Fortune 500 companies have adopted Zero Waste goals and several have made significant progress towards that goal. When researching future articles on recycling, we encourage Fortune not to rely so heavily on “Big Waste” as a source, and to interview other recyclers, Zero Waste companies, and environmental advocates. I would be happy to serve as a contact for future articles and can also provide references to other experts on this topic.
President, Northern California Recycling Association (NCRA)
Our Mission: “Engage with stakeholders to promote, expand, and implement Zero Waste programs and technologies.”
By Arthur R. Boone, Center for Recycling Research, Berkeley, 10/8/15
In the years prior to 1970, the United States spent billions of dollars developing a waste removal system that was comprehensive, relatively inexpensive, and much admired. Recycling existed in scrap industry work, mostly with metals, papers, and some glass, and paid for itself.
In 1970, the first Earth Day brought to the general public’s attention the fact that much of what was treated as wastes were in fact recyclable materials. In the general scheme of things, clean air and clean water issues were more important but a hardy band of do-gooders developed with little government assistance a national network of donation centers (4,000 by 1980) where ordinary folks with small quantities of recyclable cans, bottles and newspapers (also cardboard boxes) could aggregate their materials and feed them into the existing recycling network.
In 1976 the aluminum beverage can hit the market and touted the notable high cash value of its materials and another network, this of cash-for-cans developed. Money, not do-gooding, was in play.
In the same era various operators of do-good operations realized that their market penetration was weak and that the convenience of household pick-ups would be necessary to get the less-committed to participate in the recovery of those cans, bottles, and newspapers. From these people, (mostly in college towns: Berkeley, Boulder, Ann Arbor, Madison, Palo Alto, etc.) curbside collection programs began, but by 1985, only about 20 were operating.
While the federal government acted on Clean Water and Clean Air legislation in 1970, it was 1976 before the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act was adopted and that law, despite its noble intentions, quickly got bogged down in fifteen year battles on the regulations for landfill operations and defining hazardous wastes (which would require designated materials to be segregated from garbage and more expensive management programs).
So, starting in 1984 in New Jersey, an uncoordinated campaign of the states began writing so-called “rate and date” laws, calling on the existing local communities and the existing waste industries to reduce the materials flowing to landfills by a certain amount (the rate) by a certain date (the date). Over the next ten years about 25 states enacted such laws.
The system first thought to deliver these reductions was to be incinerators, now coupled with electrical generation and called waste-to-energy plants. Here in California 38 facilities got to the planning stages but only three were built. The high cost of construction, questionable air impacts, the destruction of materials, etc. led the public to reject these plans in many communities.
Like the early days of the AIDS epidemic where there was only one drug to fight the disease, curbside programs emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s as the go-to option for local governments to “reduce wastes.” In the ten years between 1984 to 1994, the number of programs sponsored by local governments around the country went from 20 to 2,000.
But it was easy to diss these attempts. Residential wastes were usually 30% of the total (most stuff comes from businesses and industry), participation rates were commonly below 50%, and the targeted materials were at best 30% of weekly discards (none of these early programs looked at yard and food debris, plastics, etc.), so the volume of materials quickly became 30% of 50% of 30% or what to some was a laughable 5% of what had normally been collected as wastes. The cities sponsoring these programs typically did not set up the social infrastructure to support these costly collection programs and public support was weak and poorly reinforced.
Now, twenty years later, these curbside collection program have limped along, battered by their critics as expensive boodoggles for the feel-gooders. But in a number of communities the original curbside collection program was just the beginning of a much more sophisticated program that now looks like three carts, one of cans, bottles and papers, one for all materials that will rot (yard, food and soiled paper, often called “organics”), and the balance going in a trash cart. Two bin collection trucks allow three carts to be served by two routes (cutting collection costs), and in many households over 75% of the weight of the weekly discards go out for recycling and composting. Sorting in the residence is minimal and up to 85-90% of the residents use the system. Here in northern California the compost is desired in ag applications to reduce water use and replace (somewhat) ever-more-costly fertilizers.
Sorry Mr. Tierney doesn’t seem to know about these successful programs.
By Daniel Knapp, CEO of Urban Ore, Inc., a Materials Recovery Facility now celebrating its 35th year in Berkeley, California,
To the Editor:
I’ve been a full-time operator of a well-known reuse and recycling business for 34 years now. Lots of people have been at it longer.
Some years back, your paper featured my company as an environmental success story. We’re open 360 days a year, still doing fine, thank you. All around us are others who are doing quite well, too. Our biggest problem is keeping up with the ever-growing demand for our services and products.
It’s easy to see why John Tierney gets this all wrong in his October 6 piece “The Reign of Recycling.” He didn’t talk to any of us.
Instead, he talked with the head of Waste Management, which last year landfilled over 90 million tons of resources it says couldn’t be recycled. It’s a little hard not to feel sorry for this CEO. His company owns nearly 200 landfills, and landfills compete with recycling for supply. This builds in a kind of corporate schizophrenia. Gains in recycling mean losses in landfilling. What a conundrum! Adding to the big waste companies’ problem is the fact that they have made bad investments in recycling technology, which require poor countries to accept mixed-up machine-sorted trash. Then the poorest people hand-sort it. But the biggest of these countries, China, put up a “green fence” two years ago that excluded these dirty products. Bales backed up in US warehouses. Stuff processed as resources now had to be wasted. No wonder costs for recycling went out of control!
Too bad for him. That market contraction didn’t happen to smaller and more nimble companies that produce high-quality feedstocks.
He doesn’t mention that as of 2004, there were 56,000 individual materials recovery businesses in the USA generating over $220 billion in income. We’re more numerous now, and we compete with big waste companies for supply. Likewise, he doesn’t mention that where I live, surrounded by more than 7 million people in more than 75 cities, recycling rates of 75% and better are commonplace. The supply of resources going to landfill is drying up.
How do we do this and stay solvent? Good question. But you won’t get any answers from Mr. Tierney. He says we have to be “subsidized,” whereas wasting receives service fees. There is no difference, except that we are cheaper. Our formula for success is: service fees + product sales = solvency.