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[GreenYes] On the Death of Recycling

Dear Paul,

I read your Death of Recycling essay twice last weekend. You make some
interesting points and I think you¹re onto something regarding the linkages
between recycling as a field that has gotten mixed up with the trash hauling
community. However, to a certain extent your argument seems almost to be
looking to throw the baby out (recycling) with the bathwater -- literally.
One point I would make before you read what I wrote below is that modern
recycling, if I can call it that, is still in it¹s infancy. The real
technology leaps required to address generator issues are still not here
yet, although I believe they¹re coming. Most importantly, the fact that it
is very difficult to consistently measure recycling (and trash) on the
household level AND the commercial level (except with large open-tops and
compactors) means that people and firms cannot: 1) track and understand
their waste generation behavior; 2) be incentivized for recycling and waste
reduction through market-based systems. Real-time information plus
incentives seem to me to be the key to a lot of this stuff we¹re doing.

That said, one of the things I talk a lot about in my work is the whole
issue of disposable vs. durable goods. In many ways, traditional mainstream
recycling is designed to address the disposable component of commercial and
residential waste streams. In that regard, with standard recycling we¹re
trying to capture food and beverage packaging, waste paper, old cardboard,
and other such standard disposables (oddly enough computers and cell phones
are essentially disposable, which never ceases to amaze me). If you look at
things this way, the question in part is whether recycling is the best way
to do this, but there¹s also another, bigger question, which is whether or
not these disposables are a good thing or at least have utility in the
social and economic systems in which we live. An environmental purist of
course would say, absolutely NOT. Disposables are all bad. But this is
viewing resource related issues in a very tiny and limited framework.
Obviously, there are issues of convenience, sanitation, safety, and shipping
involved in packaging material (disposable diapers, condoms, Tampax,
Kleenex, and cat litter come to mind). For paper, there¹s the simple problem
of household space and the fact that when you finish the newspaper or have
printed out the sixteenth draft of a high school report, what do you do with
this stuff when you don¹t want it? And for computers and cell phones, and
iPods apparently, there¹s only so much room in the attic or garage (argue
what you will, but technology leaps in the field of communications are the
core of this new global culture; most of us can¹t not upgrade every few

Now, a true Zero Waster, of course, calls for reuse and redesign every step
of the way. We need bottles that are at least returnable and mayo jars and
peanut butter tubs, etc. And maybe what we need with paper is disappearing
ink so that we can reuse something over and over again. We need component-
based electronic technologies with circuit boards that can be removed and
then remanufactured. The problem, of course, is that with many disposable
items the technologies and the systems required to establish true reuse are
either economically impractical or simply not there yet (which is why you¹re
advocating a new paradigm, I know). This issue of economic impracticality is
kind of important to remember, though...

At this stage of our history (modern, global, industrialized civilization),
this is really why disposables recycling exists. There¹s no doubt that folks
maybe should stop buying magazines and newspapers and get everything on the
web, including best sellers, but people don¹t want to do that (me included).
People like having reading material in their hands. As regards disposable
packaging, besides the issue of inconvenience, the economics of a true
take-back program for everything is getting a workout in the EU right now
and as far as I know most of these programs require significant government
subsidy and oversight. There¹s nothing wrong with that, but in this country
such an endeavor would be a political nightmare. We¹ve been at it with
producer responsibility for 20+ years and the fight is still far too fierce
to make much headway in. Besides, our economy here in North America has to
compete globally. This kind of makes the game difficult, if you ask me.

What I¹m saying here is not so much that I disagree with your premise
completely, but I do think that recycling has its place and that place is
actually pretty important in the so-called zero waste model. What you wrote
about end-of-pipe thinking is certainly spot-on and there¹s no question that
the front of the pipe ? the mining, agricultural and forestry side of the
equation upstream ? is far more important if we¹re talking about waste in
America and efficient resource utilization (I¹ve read that MSW represents 8%
of the total solid waste stream in America). This issue does not get
addressed by most recyclers and it should. To a certain extent, addressing
this part of the puzzle (and you¹re correct that it is the biggest piece)
goes far beyond the capacity of the solid waste and recycling community
because it is so vast and political. Requiring mining, forestry and
agricultural companies to pay the full cost of the waste they generate would
make it very difficult to compete against companies that are protected from
externalities (i.e. in the developing world). This means and end to jobs,
tax revenues, cheap raw materials, cost competitive consumer goods, etc. If
your take on Zero Waste is to address these issues, I applaud you and it
certainly needs to be done, but it is monumentally complicated and truly,
truly a political snake pit...and, again, it is global.

Now, one thing I will say, perhaps in opposition to your thesis, is that I
personally (and professionally) have never felt that the term Zero Waste was
the best concept for selling the idea of efficient resource management to
the public at-large and to corporate and political decision makers. It makes
folks think immediately of regulation, eco-nazism, and it sounds awfully
pie-in-the-sky-ish. I know this because I¹ve spent the past 20 years working
to discuss the issues that Zero Waste is all about with people in the
private and public sectors. Many people understand and agree with the
sentiment, but you lose them from the get-go because they feel and believe
that there will always be waste and that attempting to overcome that reality
is basically a pathetic example of tilting at windmills.

My own take on things is that recycling, zero waste, composting, reuse,
pollution prevention, waste reduction, etc. are all part of a much bigger
and much more important set of issues that were once defined by the term
sustainable development. All of these, along with appropriate technology,
renewable energy, green design, energy efficiency, human scale planning, and
Bill McKibben¹s new idea of Deep Economies, etc., are part of a loose
movement to make the world more livable and less hostile. We know that
resource scarcity is at the heart of geo-political conflict and poverty. We
know now that our fossil fuel based economy is causing climate change to
literally push the biosphere out of balance and into chaos, and we know that
technical innovation and inventions drive economies. We also know that
wealth is different than welfare and that the concentration of capital and
resources in the hands of the few makes innovation, invention, peace and
social justice exceedingly difficult.

Recycling has certainly been bamboozled by the waste industry and by at
least some recycling coordinators and environmental nonprofits who have
gotten into bed with that industry--or at least lost the thread of the
argument somewhere in the mid-90s when the markets were struggling and folks
were tiring of the Green is Good mantra. But there¹s also some really
interesting problems that no one has been willing to face in this community.
I¹d hoped your essay was going to get at them.

Let¹s return to the question of measuring recycling and solid waste at the
point of generation. I personally believe that whether you¹re talking Zero
Waste, recycling, waste minimization, etc., the fact that practically no one
knows what they generate, how much they recycle, and how much they reduce is
the principle reason why all of this is so hard. Human behavior on every
level depends upon knowing what you¹re actually doing when you¹re doing it.
Driving a car without a speedometer would be unthinkable. Running a business
and not keeping books would be absurd (unless you were a criminal). Talking
about reducing waste and not really knowing how well you¹re doing (except on
an aggregate basis a year or two after the fact, as we see with so many
states and the USEPA) is where everything, it seems to me, breaks down.

All that said, RecycleBank is doing some profoundly important work right now
on this front. They are only addressing the residential side of the
equation, but commercial applications are about to be unveiled.
RecycleBank¹s model has them weighing recycling carts and providing their
customers with weekly documentation of their recycling efforts along with
RecycleBank Dollars that are credits which may be used to purchase goods and
services either online or out in the real world. Expanding their system to
weighing trash as well would provide customers with even more information
because, with a little math, you would be able to tell them what their
recycling rate was. Overtime you would also be able to tell them whether
they were increasing or decreasing the amount of material they are
discarding. The obvious issue too is that you could charge people to throw
garbage out by the pound (this is being done in places around the country,
but not as well as it should be?and certainly not in big cities where waste
systems are financed through the general fund). Theoretically, this would be
one very powerful way to induce non-wasteful behavior ? using a market
driven system that provides customers with real-time data. In theory as
well, consumers then would be put in the position of having to pay for their
choices in consuming. Just as you are seeing at least some innovation in the
energy use fields at the moment because of high fuel and power pricing, it
is very likely that consumer industries would have to begin looking more
creatively at how they create products on the broadest of scales and at all
points along the pipeline.

There are a number of other issues that I see in this field that we have
allowed it to stagnate. Some are structural, some are technical, some are
political, and some are social. I¹ll leave those to my own book someday,

My real point though, is that I see recycling as having not even come close
to arriving where it needs to be as a functional component of a more
sustainable, linked, human scale society, and that zero waste is even
further behind (simply because it is trying to bite off more than it can
chew). I¹m not sure I would recommend throwing recycling out, as you at
least imply, nor do I believe it is practical or advisable to limit waste
and resource management issues by not taking into account the full spectrum
of social and cultural context. Economics and technical practicality are
only a small part of this context.

Is recycling dead? No. Are you attempting to kill it? I hope not. Is
recycling working? I have gotten into trouble before with this, but I would
say, honestly, no, not yet. It took this country about eighty years to
develop a functioning sanitation system and that system still has a lot of
problems. Very conservatively, I would say modern recycling is about 20
years old. It hasn¹t even graduated from college yet. I¹d give it another
thirty years before I began to start shopping for grave sites.


Jeez, I had work to do this afternoon. I¹ll be interested in your response.
Keep up the good thinking! And do check out my Green Emperor pieces at (there are six parts). They don¹t address recycling
specifically, but they do address the question of the death of
environmentalism and put sustainable development in a new light. Part VI may
be found here: :
43 (click on my name after the title to go to the archives for the other

All the best. I think criticizing status quo policy is a good thing. So keep
at it!

David Biddle, Executive Director
Greater Philadelphia Commercial Recycling Council
P.O. Box 4037
Philadelphia, PA 19118

215-247-3090 (desk)
215-432-8225 (cell)


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