Boone: Sorry Mr. Tierney

By Arthur R. Boone, Center for Recycling Research, Berkeley, 10/8/15

Dear Editors:

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.