Knapp: Trashy Opinions Again From John Tierney

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.