Pending Federal EPR Legislation Would Damage or Destroy US Recycling Industry

By Neil Seldman, Institute for Local Self-Reliance and NCRA Member, 8/30/19 – Excerpts and bolding by Dan Knapp of Urban Ore
In August federal bills on plastic pollution and Zero Waste were put forward in Congress by Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Representative Alan Lowenthall (D-Calif.) and Representative Ilhan Omar (D-Minn). Neither can come close to moving forward given the make-up of the Senate and the veto power of the president. Yet they can establish a blueprint for progressive steps in the future. However, some fine-tuning is needed to ensure that well-intended legislation does not actually make it harder to move forward toward recyclers’ goals.


“The call for a national EPR system is a serious mistake. Recycling is not dying and a radical effort to turn the recycling sector over to the companies that generate waste is uncalled for. It turns out that the demand for U.S. recyclables is strong in the U.S. and overseas. There is a scramble by foreign investors, led by the Chinese, to build paper and plastics recycling plants throughout the U.S. and ship clean materials to home factories. U.S. companies are vying for these materials as well. An estimated 20 new recycled paper mills are under construction in the U.S. at this time in every part of the country. Cities are converting to dual stream and small single stream processing which generate clean materials to meet these markets….”


… “Organized citizen and small business activism has been the key to the start up and growth of recycling in the U.S. and remains so to this day, starting with drop off centers, moving quickly to community based collection systems, then to eventual adoption by cities and counties. The citizens’ recycling movement merged with the hugely successful anti garbage incineration movement in the 1980s and the inspirational and practical Zero Waste Movement in the 1990s. Citizens at the local level have run for office and won, organizing coalitions that city and county councils could not ignore without a threat to their next election….”

… “An EPR system would shut this engine of recycling off completely. Access to decision makers at the local level would be eliminated as cities would have abdicated their decision making power of waste and recycling to corporate nonprofit boards that will replace all decision making, collection, processing, and marketing. Public recycling jobs would be terminated and workers rehired by these Brand Name corporations with little union and employment protections, and lower pay and benefits. Mary Lou Van Deventer, environmental writer, recycling pioneer, and principal of Urban Ore, the iconic materials reuse and processing enterprise, refers to EPR for traditional materials as a “hostile takeover” threatening 50 years of recycling activism.

“PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, and Nestlé introduced EPR for traditional recycling materials in 2013. The goal, as interpreted by the vast majority of grass roots activists, is to stop any new bottle bills from being enacted and to roll back the existing 10 state bottle bills. Frequently heard comments among pro EPR…advocates add insult to injury: Cities do not know how to recycle and they are broke so they can’t do anything, corporations have the money and know how to recycle better. The Product Stewardship Institute (PSI) praised the legislation’s EPR component, “EPR is the only transformational solution to the current crisis.”

“These comments are counter-intuitive given the history of U.S. recycling wherein cities have learned from the early successes of grassroots recycling and adopted them for municipal roll out. Grassroots pressure at the local level continues to lead the country toward new rules for waste and recycling management.

“Efforts to impose EPR controlled by Big Soda in R.I., Conn., Minn., and Calif. failed in the last few years despite a stealth strategy, including hiring of former state legislatures to lobby their former colleagues, state environmental organization staff, and grassroots environmental organizations.” []

# # #

Subsidy Or Disposal Service Fee?

Subsidy Or Disposal Service Fee? That Is The Question.
By Daniel Knapp, Ph.D., CEO, Urban Ore, Inc., a Material Recovery Enterprise in Berkeley, California since 1980.

Hello Annie Sciacca and Sophie Mattson:

In response to your July 27, 2016 article in the Mercury News, “Why Are Bay Area Recycling Centers Closing — and Can Anything Save Them?”

I am a professional reuser and recycler with 35 years experience in California. The company I work for and with, Urban Ore, Inc., has survived many market fluctuations. Our primary business is reuse, but we also do lots of recycling. In 2015 we sent just 70 tons to landfill, less than 1% of the materials we accepted, upgraded, and returned to commerce.

Your article throws into sharp relief the extreme underlying unfairness that shackles our industry and prevents it from realizing highest recycling goals that are overwhelmingly popular both with voters and with elected politicians. This unfairness stems from dominance within the materials recovery industry by solid waste management ideology, despite this managerial elite’s having lost as much as 50% market share to recyclers in some areas (like Alameda County) in the last several decades.

“…the system is rigged to make sure wasters get theirs, no matter what. And recyclers are left to beg, or close their doors.”

To see how this unfairness works and is baked into our language, consider this sentence from your article:  “Recycling centers are increasingly dependent on the state’s subsidy program, but critics say the payouts are too slow to arrive and the subsidies aren’t adjusted quickly enough to reflect changing market conditions.”

I recognize that neither you nor your newspaper are responsible for this usage. But here’s the thing:

All recyclers compete with wasting industries for the same supply of materials. Wasting industries are, however, never paid with funds that are called subsidies. Instead, they are paid with funds derived from disposal service fees. What’s the difference?

The difference couldn’t be bigger or more consequential. Subsidies are mere handouts, temporary grants, while disposal service fees are monies paid to pay for the costs of making unwanted things go away, legally, plus a minimum 15% profit. But wasting industries accomplish this task by destroying value and creating pollution. Don’t recyclers make unwanted things go away legally too, and don’t they do it in a way that produces jobs and environmental benefits far beyond what wasters can provide?  Of course they do. Then why call monies paid to recyclers subsidies?  Why not call them disposal service fees instead?

There is no good reason at all for this imbalance, other than inertia, waste industry protectionism, and public confusion.

My dictionary tells me that a subsidy is “money granted to a charity…held to be in the public interest.”  The same dictionary says a fee is “…money regularly paid for continuing services.”  Grants can be withdrawn or at least not adjusted upward when money is tight, and that’s what’s behind all these recycling center closures and all the entrepreneurial pain that your article describes so well. But fees have to be paid and even increased as costs go up, regardless. So the system is rigged to make sure wasters get theirs, no matter what. And recyclers are left to beg, or close their doors. Could anything be more unfair, even dangerous to public health and safety?

With few exceptions, the solid waste profession controls both wasting and recycling all over California at the present time. I believe we need to “feel the Bern” in our field, and create a new management structure for recycling that recognizes that we recyclers are now the centerpiece of the disposal service industry, not an expensive add-on fueled by subsidies, and therefore that we deserve full payment for our work with the coin of the realm, disposal service fees.

Waste management is a sunset industry. The fact is that we recyclers have products to sell, and wasters have only liabilities to give future generations. Enacting this needed change will make the recycling industry even more of a formidable competitor than it has been since we hands-on recyclers started our revolution on or about Earth Day, 1970.

# # #

Murder… Betrayal… Aluminum

A review of Wasted, a new novel about recycling set in Berkeley
By Daniel Knapp, Urban Ore
In John Byrne Barry’s second “Green Noir” mystery Wasted (the first was Bones in the Wash), a recycler in a company called Recycle Berkeley (Re-Be) is found mashed inside an export bale of aluminum cans at Berkeley’s transfer station. The recycler, one of Re-Be’s most passionate defenders, is dead. He didn’t get there by himself. Someone had to operate the baler, put him in it. Was it about Re-Be or was it personal? Who killed him? Who operated the baler?

At the beginning of the story, out and about on Berkeley’s gritty flatland streets at 5am, Brian Hunter temporarily escapes his boring day job as a contract bookkeeper to become a freelance reporter. His friend Doug, who drives a collection truck for Re-Be, has told him a small army of people are out every night stealing aluminum cans from Re-Be’s curbside routes. The financial impact is large. To follow the story, Brian decides to become a poacher himself. Doug gives him a route map so he can go in ahead of the collection trucks.

The first poacher he meets is unfriendly one moment, violent the next. Thinking Brian is a liar threatening his stash of cans, the poacher whacks the would-be reporter with a board. Brian howls in pain but doesn’t fight back. The two men take a break from these exertions for some talk over a couple of cans of warm beer the poacher has scored. Brian learns that poachers must have “sponsors.” This poacher offers to sponsor Brian. Brian accepts.

From then on, we’re in a strangely fictionalized but recognizable hall of mirrors that is the lot of people who actually do the work of collecting and processing all those cans and bottles. The author knows his stuff; he used to be on the board of directors of the nonprofit that does Berkeley’s curbside collection, although another nonprofit company processes the materials. In Wasted, they are merged.

Structural conflicts abound both in the novel and in real life. Poachers take the valuable aluminum and leave the rest for Re-Be. Income-deprived, Re-Be is sliding toward bankruptcy. Brian learns that Re-Be has fallen behind three months in rent to the City. He finds the politicians embarrassed and scared because Re-Be holds an exclusive City contract for curbside collection services. But City staff haven’t paid Re-Be’s service fees for months. A City Council member wants to hand Re-Be’s contract to another company. Re-Be’s managers and board battle desperately to keep the nonprofit afloat. Supporters, some armed with dubious tactics, flock to Re-Be’s defense in a press event and later in a big demonstration.

Consolidated Scavenger, a multinational waste company with a transfer station in a city to the south of Berkeley, is a big presence, willing and able to take over Re-Be’s contract. Consolidated, or “Con,” has friends in Berkeley’s high places but not so many on the street.

Just before Brian discovers the body of his friend Doug, he tells his editor how his story about poaching has morphed into something much bigger: “One power struggle mirrors another. At stake, a million-dollar…contract, the city council majority, and…the soul of Berkeley. Add sex and stir.” She says, “That’s not the story you turned in [yesterday].” Brian replies, “That’s right. But it’s the one you’ll get in two hours.”

Doug creates an upset by crashing and ruining a big celebration intended to help Re-Be. What he does leaves everyone embarrassed, confused and hating him. The unrest makes headlines around the world. As Brian tells it, “The media loves to trivialize Berkeley….many of the embryonic movements and trends nurtured here – from free speech to recycling to divestment from South Africa – have become mainstream, but the ‘only in Berkeley’ gibe never seems to go out of style.”

Besides losing the aluminum to poachers, Re-Be is losing some of its best workers to Con. Con pays better, but that’s not all. Some staff are fed up with the “kitchen-table collective” culture of Re-Be, so there are divided loyalties even before Doug’s death. The murder cleaves these loyalties into ever smaller bits.

Brian keeps following leads and trying to protect his sources while cooperating with the police, and we are carried along at a gallop. He loses lots of sleep staying just ahead of other writers who flock to the story. He falls in love with one of the female suspects and reflects on the proper relations between observer and observed. Cool detachment is impossible. He’s inside the story and outside it at the same time.

When the City tries to evict Re-Be, and when Re-Be refuses to go, the City breaks into its site at night and disables its baler. That break-in is one of the events that actually happened in Berkeley’s history. Moreover, a woman whose name begins with “K” (Kathy Evans in reality; in the novel she’s Kisa) finds a replacement part during the night, and the baler is up and running defiantly the very next day.

For fun, I made a list of all the direct parallels to the real story of Berkeley’s recycling. So far there are more than 20.

Which leads to a caution: beyond property damage, Berkeley’s recycling has never been marked by murderous violence. The skeleton of facts that Wasted assembles have been taken out of their actual context, rearranged, renamed, tilted and jumbled to serve the needs of the mystery, not history.

Recyclers have often had to defend their contracts and businesses. To resolve issues they have rarely resorted to demonstrations. Instead, they have written recycling-friendly laws and regulations that voters or City Council have strongly approved. For example, the first citizens’ initiative of three that were written all or in part by Berkeley recyclers stopped procurement on a garbage-burning power plant that City Council had already approved in concept unanimously. This citizens’ victory over their own electeds and the solid waste profession put Berkeley at the forefront of city or county burn-plant rejections that eventually totaled seven in our region alone, and hundreds around the USA. It also started a real-life multi-year no-holds-barred local political struggle. But no humans were mortally harmed.

For those already familiar with Berkeley’s tangled relations with its recyclers, Wasted can be an eerie and unsettling read. Others will enjoy learning a lot about recycling’s dark side while our hero reasons and guesses his way along a twisted trail to find the culprit.

# # #

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.