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[greenyes] Recycling's Own Sustainability

In response to Pat Franklin's posting of the article from USA Today that
reported on recycling's malaise, Karen Hales asks:
"So the question I pose to all of you and to those able to attend NRC,
are we going to do about this? Is recycling just another latté, a trend
is here today and gone tomorrow? Or is it sustainable? These are the
question I struggle with as I see local communities get rid of their
recycling positions and reduce their programs, or when I talk to someone
working for a waste company. Do we let things just take their course or is
it worth/ are we able to make recycling sustainable?"
This is a critical issue for all of us. We need to recognize that, other
than non-ferrous metals and high-grade papers, recycling -- 15 years after
the Mobro garbage barge -- remains still hanging on by tenterhooks. We can
can learn this not only by all those recycling coordinators now unemployed,
but also by talking with anyone in the private sector of the recycling
infrastructure that must compete, and further looking at the fact that,
since 1995-97, recycling has plateaued and, other than several wonder
bellwether communities that are unfortunately the exception that proves the
rule, is experiencing slow erosion.

In addition, future trends are not encouraging. The shift being driven
by Waste Management to single stream programs, although it needn't
necessarily be done this way, is being done in a manner in which the
implementation of these programs is almost certainly going to be driven to
overpack compacting trucks and run material through automated sortation
lines faster than they were designed for in an effort to reduce costs
without due regard to quality. This has a devastating implication. It
means that the deviation between the amount separated for recycling at the
curb, and the amount actually recycled, is going to drastically increase, as
residue rates soar and marketing to highest and best uses plummets. When
increases in residues, already reported by GAA to be approaching 30%, once
glass rubble returned to the landfill as daily cover is excluded from the
diversion count, is added to further increases in yield losses at
intermediate processors and end users, we may expect to see as much as a
half of what is separated winding up back in the landfill.

That is to say, those reported flat recycling rates in BioCycle, which
are already showing small signs of some deterioration, will mask the far
greater fall off in real recycling achieved. When that is brought to public
attention by our good friends in Cato Institute and the Reason Foundation,
we can expect a significant public backlash, aimed against us, not WMI who
has led the push for these changes in a way most likely to fail.

But, does this all mean we face doom and gloom as to the future of the
movement -- and the industry -- which all of us in the recycling community
have strived for over the past two decades?

It need not if we understand our fundamentals and act to make certain
key changes to take advantage of them in the future. First, the primary
thing which recycling is competing against -- apart from changes in the
global economy over which we have no control -- is landfilling, and if we
understand this fact, we can turn night into day.

As I have posted often in the past, current landfill tip fees that often
are less than $20/ton, which very few of us can compete against, do not
reflect the true cost of disposal. The so-called state of the art dry tomb
facilities are actually fatally flawed in that all the elaborate barriers
will "ultimately fail," in EPA's own words, thereby only postponing and not
preventing pollution. If landfills were moved to a safer mode, all
decomposable matter would be either pretreated, at a cost of more than $65
per ton, or diverted, at whatever cost we can develop systems for to source
separate organics for composting, which I suspect can be done for far less.
And were we to do that, as Europe is already pushing for because they
recognize the reality that we cannot safely dispose of things in the ground
that rot and make leachate and greenhouse gases, we could increase diversion
from our current levels of 30% to more than 75%, and do so on an
economically driven basis. Thus, the very thing needed to reduce landfill
injuries will, at the same time, mark a path to economically strengthen our
base level recovery efforts, as well as a open the door most of the way to
zero waste (or darn close).

Second, the landfill industry's intent to side step that bullet with
bioreactors represents a critical moment in regulatory time for us to act to
insure that those potential gains are not lost. They now propose to
deliberately add major volumes of liquids (instead of keeping the sites dry)
in an effort to stabilze the site. But, in addition to the fact that these
liquid additions that raise moisture levels to 45%-65% threaten the
stability of the site itself, bioreactors will generate massive increases in
greenhouse gases, at the same time, the US and the rest of the world is
desperately scrapping for ways to decrease existing levels. That's the
killer for this new technology being pushed on the cheap, were we to
galvanize our energies to make that point.

Note that where they have built bioreactors, the landfill industry is
now claiming that all organics belong in the landfills, because they attempt
to incorrectly catatorize bioreactors as some kind of organic digestor for
energy recovery, and are pushing that yard debris (that constitutes nearly
half of current diversion) be returned to the dump, just as has been
attempted in Illinois, Iowa and Indiana.

Well, recyclers joined together to stop those attempts to reverse our
gains in those states, and we won!, and we can continue to make progress
against inadequately regulated landfills in the future.

But, to revitalize our movement we will need to come to grips with the
fact that we our best served by defining our own interests ourselves, and
not delegating that task to those whose interests are diametrically opposite
of ours, just because of a few grants or advertising dollars that they offer
to seduce us from our appointed rounds. The waste companies tell Wall
Street that "recycling is the enemy" (their own words) -- how then can we
rely on their advice or make ourselves dependent on their services in
contracting if we intend to make recycling sustainable. Don't get me wrong,
they have legitimate interests and they are entitled to pursue them. But,
they are not ours and it ought to behoove ourselves to not adopt the
prescriptions of those who brand us as their enemy.

Not only does that extend to bioreactors, which we're asked to ignore as
too complicated for us to understand, and to single stream, when abused, but
also to other major issues we did not adequately pursue such as minimum
recycled content for newspapers (that was our salvation at our birthing in
the early 1990's). Another example is all bottles pushed by the American
Plastics Council, which threatens the economics of our PET programs by
encouraging more PVC, which is expensive to remove at current levels, and
impossible to remove at higher levels, but which we join in based upon false
information from the APC.

Every day we are given tradeoffs between short term and long term
advantage. In this case, the short term gains from sponsorships by the
Waste Mangements and American Plastics Councils are, while difficult to give
up, the price we pay to not pursue our own interests where they diverge.

Karen's question makes it unmistakably clear that the time has no come
where we have to make a choice, or face a future of irreversible decline.
Think of the blood, sweat and tears all of us have poured into creating a
world in which recycling might flourish. Do we really want to see all of
that slowly sink beneath the waves just so that we can enjoy free beer at
opening receptions at our conferences?


Peter Anderson, President
4513 Vernon Blvd. Suite 15
Madison, WI 53705-4964
Ph: (608) 231-1100
Fax: (608) 233-0011
Cell: (608) 698-1314
eMail: anderson@no.address

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