GreenYes Archives
[GreenYes Archives] - [Thread Index] - [Date Index]
[Date Prev] - [Date Next] - [Thread Prev] - [Thread Next]

[greenyes] Trashed Recyclables and the Big Picture
    The examples of recyclables being improperly landfilled that have filled
GreenYes for the past week are, indeed, extremely worrisome.

    But, bad though they are, they pale in comparison to the scandal that we
are facing in the future if we do not, ourselves, publicly confront the
implications of a switchover to single-stream programs.

    Before doing so, I would like to indicate that, done properly, there
certainly can well be, and are, individual programs where single stream
makes environmental and economic sense.

    The problem, however, is that there is nothing that compels it to be
done properly.  If not done right, its highly automated structures all too
readily lend themselves to ramping up throughputs in order to drive down
unit costs.

    But, that will have the effect of forcing up residue rates.  Already,
according to a survey that Eureka Recycling commissioned, single stream has
residue rates of 27.2% on an unweighted basis of 15 facilities in 2001,
three times as high as two stream plants.  We must remember, of course, that
this number is before residues at the intermediate processors or end users.
And, as the posting about paper markets today illustrates, the increase in
residuals at the MRF will be mirrored downstream with higher residuals in
the processing needed to upgrade recyclables for reuse, as well.

    That means, before things really start getting seriously bad, we're
already talking about almost half of the material that the public carefully
separates to save the environment winds up being landfilled in the end.
Combined with that, we'll have to wrestle with push-backs by the end
markets, which we are already beginning to see, who have to deal with the
degradation in material quality, which will create the all to real
impression that the entire market infra-structure that we carefully have
built up for the past 15 years is crumbling.

    The question, then, is whether single stream will be done properly or
not.  While there are and will continue to be instances of cases where it
is, we have to look at who controls most of the recycle collection in
America to assess what will be the dominant influence of single stream.  And
that is the large vertically integrated waste companies who make their money
on garbage, not recycling.

    Listen to how the trash industry views recycling in its own words:
          "[R]ecycling has long been the enemy of the solid waste industry,
stealing volumes otherwise headed for landfills."  (Source: Morgan Stanley,
U.S. Investment Research: Environmental Services: Solid-Waste Pricing Debate
Intensifies, March 2, 1998, at p. 1.)
    These integrated waste companies -- i.e. those national firms who link
together hauling with their own landfills -- have overriding economic
incentives to minimize recycling costs and, to the maximum  extent that it
can be done without public recriminations, to also minimize recovery rates
which "steal volumes otherwise headed for landfills." In saying this, I
would insert that they have a legitimate economic interest and they are
entitled to assert their self-interest.  It is just that their interest is
contrary to what the American public wants or expects. (Note that nothing
here necessarily applies to the independent waste haulers without
significant landfill interests.)

    Single stream now gives those same landfill companies a gun to hold to
our heads to achieve their strategy.  By ramping up throughputs, they can
drive down costs and steal business from bona fida MRF enterprises in most
cities and send more and more ostensible recycled materials to their

    There are some cities who will write RFP and enforce bids to prevent
residue abuses, but we can count them on one hand.  They do not define the
aggregate impact on recycling in America where cost is the driver (NYC being
only the latest and most pronounced example).  As noted before, this will
result in a recycling version of Gresham's law which says that bad money
forces good money out of circulation, in which bad MRFs will force good MRFs
out of circulation, as is already happening before our eyes in places like
upstate New York, and, I have to think, elsewhere as well.

    We have an immediate choice in this matter.  We can sit back, hold our
breath and wait until John Tierney brings out his carving knife again to
skewer us (and if not him there is a whole retinue of libertarian think
tanks waiting in the wings with bated breath).  Or we can take the offensive
as the recycling community to alert the public up front right now about what
single stream in the hands of the national trash companies means.
Otherwise, when the scandal blows, we will be lumped together with what the
landfill companies are doing, regardless of the facts.

    We need to have some venue to work through what all this means and
what's happening across the landscape so that a coordinated response can be
developed. Perhaps this might be the subject of a roundtable at the NRC in
Baltimore if they are agreeable.

Peter Anderson
4513 Vernon Blvd. Suite 15
Madison, WI 53705
Ph:    (608) 231-1100
Fax:   (608) 233-0011
Cell    (608) 438-9062
email: anderson@no.address

[GreenYes Archives] - [Date Index] - [Thread Index]
[Date Prev] - [Date Next] - [Thread Prev] - [Thread Next]