NCRA Response To Fortune Magazine

Dear Editor:

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.


Laura McKaughan
President, Northern California Recycling Association (NCRA)
(510) 982-1841

Our Mission: “Engage with stakeholders to promote, expand, and implement Zero Waste programs and technologies.”

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.

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.

European Waste Picker Organizing Begins

Trans-European Waste Picker Organizing Begins

By Portia Sinnott, NCRA Editor and SpringLoop Cooperative, 09/8/2015
The first European Waste Picker Meeting was held September 7 in Antwerp, Belgium. The organizers included Netherlands-based global recycling specialist Anne Scheinberg of Springloop Cooperative, Serbian innovation specialist Jelena Nesic of DTI, Pietro Luppi and Sevla Sejdic of Occhio di Riciclone (the eye of the REcyclone (OdR) and Paddy Noë of Noë Waste Measurement Consultants (NWMC), the one day informal recyclers meeting was held in cooperation and in parallel with the annual International Solid Waste Association (ISWA) conference.

The goal was to open the channels of communication between the informal recyclers and re-users and the formal solid waste establishment. This meeting was a first step and went well. At the 2016 ISWA conference in Novi Sad, Serbia, a series of panels are already planned devoted to this topic, and there will be an invitation and space for many more European waste pickers, and their Asian and Latin American and African counterparts, to attend.

Twenty-seven people participated in the waste picker meeting. Informal recyclers and reuse entrepreneurs came from Paris, France, Rome, Italy and Belgrade, Serbia plus three generations of one Hungarian family. Most informal recyclers and re-use entrepreneurs in Europe are from Roma ethnic groups – sometimes known as gypsy people. The organizations that were represented from France and Italy also have a social development and job creation mission.

Also taking part was Mr. Alphan Eröztürk, President of the Turkish EPR organization CEVKO – Environmental Protection and Packaging Waste Recovery and Recycling Trust, representing the European Extended Producer Responsablity Alliance, EXPRA. Advocates and “others” included action researchers and practitioners from Brazil and India plus ISWA Young Professionals from the US and Brazil. It was a pleasure meeting all of these people, especially translator extraordinaire Sonja Barbul of Belgrade, Serbia, who juggled seven languages using a simple mobile microphone system with individual receivers. It really helped to be able to hear clearly.

Two interrelated topics were brought up again and again and again during the meeting – lack of legal identity papers, and the right to collect, process and/or sell recyclables and reusables without fear of police harassment. Roma people in particular are frequent victims of discrimination, and, for historical and cultural reasons, are often outside of all legal systems. Picking waste gives them an honest way to support their families, but closing spaces for informal activity sometimes put them on the wrong side of new EU-stimulated waste laws.
At the same time waste management systems around Europe are becoming more and more formalized and rigid, and private sector participants of all sizes must meet certain requirements.

In some countries this creates for informal recyclers, a cascading series of double binds. In France it is possible for anyone to collect discards but selling it may be difficult depending on the jurisdiction. In Paris – but not in Montreuil, an adjacent city, reuse business people may be chased away from the market where they are displaying cleaned and repaired goods. In Hungary, bulky goods are legally imported by semi-formal traders, from richer waste streams in Austria and Italy. Even when informal re-users are given goods and furniture by their owners, they can be accused of stealing from the waste management companies, and prevented from keeping or selling the items. In Rome, pickers can have a days’ work confiscated and given to the formal service provider, or trampled and thrown back in a dustbin before their eyes.

Serbian law prohibits private collection of discards but the law is generally not enforced. One company picks up plastic from 300 businesses and gives them new plastic bags in return. Even though no money changes hands, a vehicle hauling a large load may be pulled over by the police and the driver asked for identity papers, permits or other documents to which informal entrepreneurs seldom have. The authorities may be “so nice” as to let the re-use traders go – if they leave behind a fat bribe. Storage and processing can be a serious challenge as well. In some cities, buyers pay informal recyclers less than the market price because they know they can’t complain.

The most restrictive, anti-re-use statute is in Austria, there waste management companies are paid by the ton for what they pick up and therefore consider all other activity to be stealing their money. If you have used items in your house set aside for the flea market or for giving away, these materials legally already belong to the local authority, just based on your intention.

In California discards placed in recycling carts generally belong to the jurisdiction or service provider. Everything else is up for grabs. Anyone can sell to a buy-back, donate to a non-profit, give goods away or put them out for whoever comes along. Litter belongs to whoever picks it up. Flea markets and reuse businesses may be a different story since they have to report sales to the state. (No businesses or buy-backs I am familiar with discriminate on legal status. If you know of a situation where non-residents are ill-treated in this regards, please let me know. I will not quote you.)

The report will be posted in a few months… Springloop:, and

Editor’s note: For the curious, my tasks for this project included assisting with pre-event organizing, welcoming and assisting participants, casual translation utilizing my rudimentary German – the only language the Hungarians spoke other than Hungarian and Roma, taking detailed notes and writing the draft report. I hope to take part in next year’s meeting in Serbia.

Masonic Homes’ Composting Tour

Masonic Homes Photo JC1NCRA Tours Masonic Homes’ Innovative Composting and Woodlands

By Nicole Gaetjens, Sustainability Coordinator at Mills College and Ellen Hopkins, Zero Waste and Composting Consultant

NCRA members Ellen Hopkins and Nina Salvador and Tri-CED Recycling employee Raquel Archuleta led eight other NCRA members on a tour of an on-site composting system in July. Located on 250 acres in the hills of Union City, Masonic Homes is one of the largest assisted living facilities in Northern California. Masonic Homes and the neighboring facility – Acacia Creek Retirement Community, have partnered with Tri-CED Community Recycling for over three years to compost all food discards generated by 600 full-time residents and staff in an on-going effort to increase sustainability at the site. The compost produced is being used for an innovative habitat restoration project led by Math Science Nucleus (MSN) to restore native California flora to the hillside of this Mission Hills property.

The Earth Flow is made by Green Mountain Technologies. Ellen Hopkins, composting consultant, and Raquel Archuleta explained the collection flow, in-vessel compost process and operations. Raquel collects prep (pre-consumer) and dining (post-consumer) food waste daily in four to five 64-gallon containers and brings it to the compost station. The compost system has a tote-tipper that tips each container into the loading end of the machine and an electric auger mixes the material into the existing compost in the system. Food scraps (nitrogen source) are mixed with equal parts of bulking agent (carbon source) in the system to produce a C:N ratio that makes the composting process effective. Daily input of food waste is about one ton or two yards, and bulking agent is about ½ ton or 2 yards. The bulking agent(s) used in this case is horse bedding from a neighboring horse stable and chipped wood waste from landscape maintenance on the property. The NCRA group checked out the compost in the vessel and were surprised there was no noticeable odors.

The Earth Flow is a fully automated, fully contained, in-vessel composting system that provides optimum conditions for thermophilic composting. The auger, aeration and moisture addition systems are programmable for process and product objectives. The traveling auger mixes in the new feedstock at the load end. The new material is quickly inoculated with active composting microbes as it is blended in. Process air above the compost in the vessel is pulled through a biofilter next to the Earth Flow. The biofilter is composed of moistened woodchips. Microbes that normally inhabit woodchips (no inoculants needed) scrub odors and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) with 95% efficiency. The “plug flow” matrix migrates to the discharge end over the course of 2-3 weeks. In-vessel time depends upon the amount of material loaded and system size. After processing within the vessel, the compost is unloaded and cured to completion outside of the vessel within 6-8 weeks.

Nina Salvador, who is familiar with the reforestation project, described it in more detail: Masonic Homes and partners aim to restore the native oak woodland that once inhabited this region prior to the over grazing of cattle. The woodland will provide ecosystem services and enjoyment to the community. Nearby California State University-East Bay faculty and students are also involved in the restoration effort led by Joyce Blueford of MSN. This closed-loop system demonstrates a win-win-win project and was a great tour for the NCRA group.

WHOIS… MATH SCIENCE NUCLEUS is a 33 year old national and international educational and research non-profit composed of scientists, educators and community members. Locally it is associated the Children’s Natural History Museum in Fremont. It serves as an online science resource center to assist school districts, teachers, and administrators around the world. The major goal is to develop problem solving capacity through science for the world’s children. Read more… MSN: