Fri, 22 Jan 1999 16:14:07 -0500

Experiencing anti-recycling fevor in your area? The piece below makes a
good op-ed piece. Feel free to send to your local editor. --Bill Sheehan

What Is Behind The Attack On Recycling?

By Neil Seldman
Copyright by ILSR 1996
Institute for Local Self-Reliance
Washington, DC

The attack on recycling has moved to another level with the publication
of The New York Times Magazine cover story followed by dozens of op-
eds with a similar slant printed in hundreds of newspapers across the

These latest attacks are remarkable in two ways. One is their one-
sidedness. The long New York Times Magazine piece, for example, did
not cite a single recycling organization although it did cite as a resource
four conservative think tanks.

The other unusual aspect of these articles is there virtual complete lack
of empirical data. What makes this particularly galling to those of us in
the recycling movement is that the data is readily available to
demonstrate that a well-run recycling program can save governments,
households and businesses significant money.

So why then these blistering attacks? I offer two financial and one
ideological reason.

* Information from national hauling companies show the industry
earning five to six times as much profit on their investment in disposal
as compared to their investment in recycling. This may explain the
animus toward recycling by the hauling industry. Indeed, in the 1970s
the hauling industry insisted that recycling beyond a few percent was
impossible. In the 1980s it claimed that 10 percent recycling was the
limit. In the 1990s it declared 25 percent the maximum feasible recycling
level. By 1995, in fact, the nation has reached a 25 percent recycling
level. A new national goal of 35 percent by the year 2005 was recently
announced by the EPA. Dozens of communities have exceeded the 40
percent level and several are breaking the 60 percent barrier.

* Disposal technologies such as landfills and incinerators are very
capital intensive. Recycling operations, on the other hand, are labor
intensive. Thus bankers and bond firms vigorously support disposal
technologies while discounting or opposing recycling. This difference
in the capital and labor intensity not only leads to powerful supporters
in the disposal camp but it also has colored even supposedly empirical
analyses of the economics of waste management systems. For example,
one major and widely publicized study on waste management system
economics assumed that virtually all of the costs of the system were
fixed, that is, represented long term capital investments. For those
attacking recycling, as The Wall Street Journal did in a major piece in
1995, this assumption leads them to view recycling as simply an add-on
cost and therefore expensive. In fact, when recycling reaches high levels
and system managers view it as the way they collect wastes, then fixed
costs can become variable costs. Labor can be reassigned. Twenty
percent of the fleet vehicles turn over annually and can be redesigned
and reduced in scale and cost.

* Attacks on recycling are not only fueled by the self-interest of
national hauling firms and bonding firms. They are also ideologically
driven. The New York Times Magazine piece is a good case in point.
The author, John Tierney, conceded that recycling required only a
minute a day of someone's time, that it saved energy and reduced
pollution and that almost everyone who participated in the activity felt
good about it. Yet he concluded that recycling is "the most wasteful
activity in modern America." What The New York Times Magazine
ended up attacking was not recycling per se, but frugality, the notion
that there are resource limits and perhaps most importantly, the idea
that citizens can establish rules that govern our commercial behavior.
The last may be the key point. The conservative attack on government
has become a wholesale attack on governance, that is, the ability of
communities to act collectively to make the rules that govern behavior.
Although conservatives sowed fertile ground with their attacks on
federal bureaucrats they have found it much more difficult to attack
recycling because it has been a grassroots, ground up effort, often in the
face of government opposition and with little or no help from
Washington. In 1970 only two curbside recycling programs existed. By
1995 there were more than 7,000. Recycling represents government at its
best: local, democratic, flexible, responsive and effective. Thus The New
York Times Magazine piece merely touched upon the economics of
recycling and focused on the ethics of recycling. It tried to make those
who recycle feel foolish.

Recycling is a most interesting phenomenon. It may represent the
most popular, multi-ethnic, multi-racial and multi-class movement in
modern times. It is a bottom up movement that demands a waste
disposal system that minimizes waste and maximizes flexibility and
returns to the local economy.

More people recycle than vote in this country. Recycling will
remain strong. It will withstand the self-interested attacks of the hauling
industry and Wall Street. It will outlive the right wing attack on the
democratic process. The history of recycling demonstrates that it is a
permanent part of the political and economic landscape.

Neil Seldman is president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and
director of its Waste Utilization Program. His most recent publication
"The History of Recycling in the U.S.", Encyclopedia of Energy,
Technology and the Environment, Wiley & Sons, New York, 1995.
ILSR tel 202-232-4108; email

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