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[GreenYes] Re: The Death of Recycling?

OK, we've been challenged by Peter to respond to this on GreenYes, so here are some thoughts to get the debate moving:

1) Dr. Palmer highlights how different Zero Waste is from recycling, since recycling focuses on the low-end of the value chain rather than redesigning production. This seems a somewhat this is an artificial distinction. Recycling has, as long as I've been working on the issue, been at the lower end of the recycling hierarchy. At the very top was Source Reduction, which seems to include many of the attributes Palmer assigns to Zero Waste. Is it mostly a rebranding and increased emphasis on source reduction, or are there important differentiating factors I'm missing?

2) Some of the criticisms about Zero Waste being a figment ("there will always be waste") also seem misguided. I look at the term in the same way as I look at "Zero Defects." It is a long-term objective, rather than a statement of fact. Companies still have defects (in their processes as well as their products) even after years in a zero defects program. But hopefully they have improved the way they operate so they make fewer mistakes, equally importantly, they identify the ones they do make much more quickly. Zero Waste should have the same aims: not only reducing waste steadily over time, but also improving the systems by which we understand how and why waste is generated, and the accuracy by which we measure our waste generation patterns.

3) I fully agree with Palmer's frustration about recycling, 20-30 years on, still muddling with low grade materials recovery. Glass collections in the Boston area are being used for landfill aggregate, and this is termed recycling. Much of our high value paper still ends up being burned (helped, no doubt, by a range of federal subsidies that favor burning for energy over recycling), or in low grade mixes shipped off to China. I've spent three months trying to validate the fate of some of the paper fractions that major cities in this area segregate and think they are recycling. It is clear that at least some of these materials are not being repulped. At the very least, finding out about materials disposition should be easy, not hard. Without that transparency, there is little pressure on market participants to fix the problems and to innovate.

So where is the failure? I think the recycling community, including municipalities, has done a poor job forcing responsibility for product stream contaminants back up on the manufacturers. If blue glass screws up cullet mixes, or polycoat paper can be handled only by very view mills in the world, or some packaging is PVC and contaminating other resin streams, it should be the manufacturers problem. The manufacturers should be so cognizant that incompatible materials will become their problem that they work with recyclers to iron out the system well before they introduce these materials into the marketplace.

I think there has been a measurement failure as well -- and here I think the federal EPA has not lived up to what could have been its role. Diversion data I look at is buggy, inconsistent, often self-reported. Many in the reporting chain have an interest of puffing up the numbers. The federal EPA could have done much more to establish best practices and perhaps "out" communities where reported numbers were particularly inaccurate. I think they have also failed on the industrial side by not measuring and reporting the technical capabilities on the ground for materials beneficiation in a semi-annual technical capabilities survey. Computerized cullet and resin separation have entered the marketplace, but costs remain high and deployment fairly slow. How much more effectively can paper waste streams be segregated by fiber type today than in 1985? In what other areas might innovation change the dynamics of materials production and recovery?

EPA has a fairly large program aimed at landfill methane capture for energy -- despite growing evidence, according to Peter Anderson, that the vast majority of methane escapes fugitively even from landfills with collection systems. More attention on waste avoidance and recovery would perhaps be a better use of resources. Landfill emissions, after all, can simply be dealt with by regulating them more stringently as a pollutant.

4) Product chains are complicated, more so than "The Death of Recycling" outlines. Would making computers more repairable always be a good thing? Refrigerators? There is always a tradeoff between capital extension and improved operating costs (including energy efficiency) and operating characteristics. There are also trade-offs between open standards for reusability and innovation. Palmer wants all circuit board configurations to be public as a prerequisite for them being able to enter the marketplace. This will assumedly help their reuse and repair (though probably less than he hopes due to the dramatic improvements in each successive chip generation). But development of those boards has required millions of dollars of investment, and publicity could well erode the competitive position of the developers. If this happened, and the pace of innovation in circuit boards slowed down (though board reuse rose), would we as a society be better off? Not at all clear to me, given the many important systems that rely on microchips, and that new generations of microchips help make these systems more efficient over time.

Making production chains more accurately reflect resource costs -- both in inputs and disposal -- would be a great thing. It would probably result in many improvements in the environmental profile of manufacturing and distribution. Product life might be extended in some areas. But not all, and turnover in some areas is a good thing, not a bad one.

-Doug Koplow

Doug Koplow
Earth Track, Inc.
2067 Massachusetts Avenue - 4th Floor
Cambridge, MA 02140
Tel: 617/661-4700
Fax: 617/354-0463

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