Re: [GRRN] Recent Betsy Hart opinion essay on recycling

John Reindl (
Tue, 9 Nov 1999 11:12:24 -0600

Hi Roger ~

Great response, and call for more discussion..

It seems to me that Betsy Hart's article was published before. I wonder
if it came out last year at the same time -- right before America
Recycles Day...

While landfill space may not any longer be viewed as a key issue
pushing recycling, I think that the environmental impact of landfills is still
very key and needs to be examined more in depth. The studies from
Europe place a large cost on the air impacts (Norway slapped a $40 a
ton fee on landfills due to the externalities caused by methane
emissions and the global greenhouse gas impacts) and a recent
European study stated that the leachate from a municipal waste landfill
with 8 inches a year of leachate has the potential to be a threat to
groundwater for 300 years. The length of time that the leachate is viable
is inversely proportional to the amount of leachate produced, so a site
with 4 inches of leachate per year remains a potential threat to the
groundwater for 600 years. Given our current regulatory approach to
limit water infiltration and leachate generation, we are in fact extending
the length of time that landfills are going to need long term care. On the
other hand, in the US, the Regulatory Impact Analysis for the US EPA
regulations assumes that no corrective action would be taken for
landfills past the time that the long term care period of the owner (either
10 or 40 years in their analysis), thus underpricing the cost of landfills.

So the landfill issue is far from being removed as a reason to recycle,
and should be evaluated more carefully along with all the other reasons
that are not being explored more in-depth, such as the environmental
benefits of using recyclable material in manufacturing processes.

And, as for the economics of recycling, the accounting is skewed both
by the subsidies for virgin materials and the savings that accrue in the
solid waste collection system. GRRN has put out a comprehensive
report on the subsidies for virgin materials at the national level. State
subsidies for virgin materials are less well studied, but if my state is any
indication ($50 to $100 million for timber alone), are also substantial.

Less well studied is the financial impact that recycling (and composting
of yard and food debris) have on the trash part of the solid waste
system. Our studies of the City of Madison program (which diverts more
than 50% of its waste) found that because of the diversion of so much
material through recycling and composting, the City was able to reduce
their trash collection needs and routes. This saving was considerable
and shows the need to look at overall system costs, rather than focus
on just the individual components.

John Reindl, Recycling Manager
Dane County, WI

> Dear GreenYes:
> Pablo Collins was kind enough to forward to this list the text to Betsy
> Hart's opinion essay on recycling that was published recently on
> NandoTimes. Naturally, some of us were upset with Ms Hart's opinions.
> I was, of course, disappointed with the tenor of her thoughts on
> recycling. But I was even more disappointed with this list's response
> which ranged from a crushing silence to squeals of outrage. The purpose
> of a discussion list such as GreenYes is to --- discuss! Well, I agree
> with Bill McGowan's recent reply in which he clearly stated that ad-
> hominem attacks are not a good substitute for reasoned discussion. I
> would like to offer my contribution to this topic, which I hope will help
> us move on in a positive way, with the following thoughts about articles
> in the vein of Ms. Hart's essay:
> 1. In a way, articles attacking the virtues or value of municipal
> recycling can be seen in a positive light since what journalist will waste
> time and precious ink (or electrons) on insignificant issues. The fact
> that recycling programs of all stripes have now become established in
> thousands of communities nationally means that municipal recycling has now
> become a big and important enough target for journalistic barbs.
> Congratulations - recycling has achieved sacred cow status! Frankly, I am
> surprised there isn't a bigger cloud of journalistic biting bugs hovering
> over this beast.
> 2. Criticism, for whatever reasons, is good if it is handled well and our
> responses to it become the basis for making recycling stronger. We should
> assume, unless there is clear evidence to the contrary, that criticisms
> against recycling are being made for honorable reasons even if we
> strenuously disagree with the assumptions or conclusions that are advanced
> by the critics. If the critics are right, then let's correct the
> problems. If they are wrong, then we need to carefully respond to them in
> the same vein as the Natural Resources Defense Council ( did
> in their report "Too Good to Throw Away."
> 3. I will be the first to acknowledge that many recycling programs could
> be better managed and that there are many cost efficiency improvements
> that still need to be fully worked out. It is hard for professionals who
> work in this field to keep track of all the new improvements and programs
> that are being done. I believe it is impossible for professionals, like
> journalists, who are looking in from the outside, to know what is really
> happening without informed guidance. Unfortunately, sometimes this
> guidance comes from the wrong source. For example, Ms. Hart's citation
> from "recycling expert" James DeLong is based on Mr. DeLong's Competitive
> Enterprise Institute's monograph "Wasting Away: Mismanaging Municipal
> Solid Waste." For those interested in reading it's executive summary
> online go to:
> Interestingly enough, a review of Mr. DeLong's bio does not seem to
> reveal the kind of background I would expect for a "recycling expert." We
> should make it as easy as possible for journalists, who are not familiar
> with this subject and who don't have an ideological axe to grind, to get
> the facts on where recycling makes sense and works well. I would
> recommend, in this vein, a comprehensive online bibliography of print and
> web-based citations on the value of municipal recycling. We should then
> promote this web site to all major news organizations as well as to other
> web sites that are specifically oriented to helping journalists do
> Internet based research for their articles.
> 4. We need to candidly acknowledge that there may be cases where, in the
> short run, the cost to maximize waste reduction and recycling can cost
> more than landfilling everything. However, there is nothing wrong with
> this situation if the community is well aware of this outcome and is
> willing to support it because of prevailing community values. For example,
> where I live in Southeast PA, there are communities that have rejected
> municipal contracting for solid waste and recycling even though it would
> be cheaper because many residents prefer making their own choices on which
> company provides these services. Conversely, we need to make it clear
> that because of the myriad ways in which solid waste and recycling
> services are paid for in the U.S. it is simply not true, contrary to what
> Ms. Hart asserts, that paying less for these services automatically means
> more money for other public services such as libraries.
> 5. Bill Carter pointed out in his e-mail message of 11/5/99 that we keep
> seeing the same arguments and criticisms against recycling over and over
> such as the bashing we endure over the fallacy of the landfill capacity
> scarcity argument that was once advanced as a reason to recycle. Well, to
> paraphrase a well worn cliche, it did look like a good reason at the time.
> The bottom line is that we need to careful about the justifications we
> give for supporting municipal recycling and that includes trying to make
> allowances for significant potential changes in policies, technologies and
> market changes that could undercut these justifications. Because, as we
> see now, if we're proven wrong our critics will literally recycle their
> arguments interminably.
> Sincerely,
> Roger M. Guttentag
> 610-584-8836
> Read Recycling in Cyberspace in Resource Recycling
> (
> November / December, 1999 topic : How to Use the Internet More
> Effectively for Improving Recycling.
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