You say "recycling is garbage?" Trash that argument

You say "recycling is garbage?" Trash that argument

John Tierney is a science writer for The New York Times who gained notoriety among environmentalists nearly 20 years ago for an article in the paper’s Sunday Magazine trashing the viability of recycling.

Last Sunday he wrote another prominent Times article questioning recycling economics and asking whether it is a worthwhile activity. 

Tierney’s 1996 revisionist critique, "Recycling is Garbage," famously argued it was an economic failure because it rarely covered its costs and was of questionable environmental benefit. It was often quoted by conservative writers and think tanks to strengthen arguments against environmental protection programs.

Also, bizarrely, it sought to portray recyclers as zealots, for whom it has become "the most primitive form of materialism: the worship of materials." National environmental groups wrote lengthy rebuttals accusing him of using half-truths and lobbing unsupported broadsides.

In his new opinion piece, Tierney argues that not much has changed and that the state of recycling is worse, citing dropping commodity prices for recyclables, and higher costs to collect a widening array of materials, echoing David Steiner, CEO of recycling giant Waste Management, who has made similar statements this past summer. Unfortunately, Tierney continues to use half-truths and unsupported salvos to reach his desired conclusion that much of recycling is a waste of time.

The hardest statement to swallow was Tierney’s quote from J. Winston Porter, a Reagan-era EPA official, that zero-waste goals “makes no sense at all  it’s very expensive with almost no real environmental benefit.” There was no data cited to support this sweeping indictment of programs supported by many cities and major corporations.

There’s plenty of data from U.S. companies that zero waste is not a cost but a revenue stream. Procter & Gamble has reported that its zero waste efforts created more than $1 billion in value for the company in the past five years. Walmart, which has set zero waste as a core environmental goal, reported in 2012 than it expected to gain $150 million in benefits to its bottom line the following year from sustainability initiatives including zero waste, in addition to $231 million already saved from waste reduction and recycling efforts.

A convoluted discussion of recycling and carbon offsets tries to frame progress as being based on how many plastic bottles one person would have to recycle ("Oh my God, 40,000!") to offset the emissions of a transatlantic flight.

That little nugget fades to irrelevance in the face of the central point, as he acknowledges later, that collectively, Americans’ recycling efforts avert emissions of 186 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, equivalent to the emissions of 39 million cars — more than 15 percent of all cars on the road today. That’s a big deal no matter how you try to spin it. 

Yes, prices for recyclables are down and processing costs are up, but there is also evidence, which Tierney conveniently ignores, to suggest that recycling will rebound and continue to develop as a valuable part of the U.S. economy. While some recyclers are suffering, facing layoffs or worse, recycling overall continues to generate substantial revenue.

In the last 20 years it has become an integral part of our economy, providing more than $100 billion in annual economic activity and responsible for 470,000 direct and indirect jobs, according to the Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries.

Waste Management CEO Steiner has stirred the same pot in recent months, complaining of how low commodity prices and rising processing costs have hurt profits, resulting in several high profile articles painting dire problems for recycling. Yet Steiner seems to concede his company’s predicament is a mess largely of his own making.

"We all screwed it up," he told an industry conference, referring to the industry’s failure to foresee the extended downturn in prices when negotiating multi-year contracts with cities and now losing money as a result. 

The company also had a direct hand in increased processing costs. Over the past decade, Waste Management switched millions of customers from dual-stream recycling (putting sorted recyclables in separate bins) to single-stream (all in one bin) to save labor costs and boost yields.  Collection volumes increased, but so did contamination.

Single stream has had the unintended result of consumers throwing too many non-recyclable materials into blue bins, which then need to be sorted so they don’t damage equipment and spread contamination. So while Tierney complains about zealous recyclers, there’s evidence to the contrary; that many citizens can’t be bothered with separating recyclables, and routinely throw them into the trash stream.

Ironically, Tierney cites the title of a recent article “Recycling is Not Dead,” by consultant Patty Moore to demonstrate concern within the industry, without acknowledging that it refutes many of his assertions.  Moore says the death of recycling has often been predicted when scrap prices fall and that recovery is lagging more this time partly because material recovery facilities (MRFs) have not been able to keep up with disruption caused by the change in collected materials. Most MRFs were designed to separate newspapers from bottles and cans.

Times have changed; the volume of post-consumer newsprint has dropped drastically as readers take their news online. Many MRFs aren’t equipped to separate a new generation of materials like ultra-thin plastic bottles, aseptic cartons and a huge variety of plastic containers, some with multiple resins. Once MRFs are upgraded, Moore believes recycling will thrive again. But should MRFs have to pay to retool equipment for any new company that puts a disruptive package on the market?

If recycling doesn’t make economic sense, then Tierney needs to ponder why the CEOs of Walmart, Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive, and even Goldman Sachs last year established a $100 million loan program, the Closed Loop Fund, to boost the effectiveness of recycling by improving curbside infrastructure and recovery markets. One of its first investments is a plastics recovery facility in Baltimore providing modernized sorting, making it easier for cities in the Northeast to sell a wider range of plastics back into recovery markets.

Similarly, Ball, Coca-Cola, Novelis and P&G are supporting The Recycling Partnership, which invests directly in communities to improve curbside performance; this is an even more laudable effort, as it provides direct grants and investments, not loans.

In addition, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestle Waters and Starbucks have made public commitments to far higher bottle, can or cup recycling rates. Colgate-Palmolive and P&G have agreed to increase the recyclability of their packaging, and Walmart wants to boost use of recycled resin in suppliers’ products and packaging by a whopping 3 billion pounds by 2020.

Tierney seems perplexed that people actually like to recycle and continue to press their local politicians to add new materials to collection lists even if they will be costly to recover. To explain this, he suggest that it’s really about "affluent people who feel guilty about their enormous environmental footprint.” Recycling he says, is “less an ethical activity than a religious ritual."

But again, curiously — especially for a science writer alleging that recycling and zero waste efforts don’t pay their own way  he offers zero data to back up his assertions about human motivation.

This is not to say recycling doesn’t face challenges, and the article raises issues that deserve wider discussion. Recycling rates are often flat or only slowly inch forward. Recycling suffers from a lack of federal leadership and policy mandates, inadequate funding to modernize recovery facilities, lack of a strong policy framework in many cities and states, and fierce efforts by some corporations to avoid any financial responsibility for recycling products and packaging.

Historically, local control and funding of curbside recycling means the resulting cost, quality and funding of programs is all over the map.  State recycling rate estimates range from a high of 48 percent for Maine, 45 percent for Minnesota and 43 percent for California, to 2 percent for Utah and 1 percent for Louisiana. 

Recycling is not free; it requires significant capital investment to collect and process materials. Some cities may be sending a mixed message to citizens by bundling recycling costs with trash costs, which can send a signal that recycling is somehow a free add-on.

For many cities, improving the quality of recycling efforts has had to take a back seat to funding education and filling potholes. With continued municipal budget deficits, the ability of cities to fund needed MRF upgrades noted above is in doubt. A lot of that funding should come from corporations who put products and packaging — especially new disruptive types of packaging that can’t be processed — on the market.

Corporations need to step up and move far beyond their modest initial investments in the Closed Loop Fund and Recycling Partnership. They need to acknowledge that curbside recycling is an environmental externality U.S. taxpayers have borne long enough. Producer responsibility is already happening in other sectors of the economy. Half of the states have laws requiring electronics manufacturers like Apple, Dell and HP to pick up the tab for end-of-life recycling. 

No, recycling is not always going to be “profitable” as measured by Wall Street, nor should it have to be, as a recognized benefit to the environment, saving resources and energy and reducing harmful emissions. There are hybrid models of financial success. Tierney does not mention the most successful demonstrated U.S. recycling method — container deposit laws. In the 11 states that has such laws in 2010, the most often collected containers were recycled at rate ranging from 66 percent to 96 percent, whereas for states without such laws, the overall rate was 30 percent, according to the Container Recycling Institute. 

The main targets of these laws, soda and water companies, fight them bitterly. Yet in my experience, they also seem open to some form of producer recycling fees if they were broadened from just beverages to cover all kinds of packaging, leveling the playing field of responsibility. The demonstrated success of deposit laws suggests that materials without high market value can be nudged in that direction by having government assign them a value through a nickel or dime deposit, which in turn provides a financial incentive for collection in sufficiently high volumes for a successful processing market to develop.

The Carton Council, a group of aseptic and milk carton providers, has provided financing  for sorting facility upgrades in California and initial access to buyers of these materials to encourage more local collection of milk, juice and soup cartons for recycling. Most of the high-quality fiber in cartons still gets landfilled, wasting valuable forest resources and generating harmful methane emissions.

This program provides a potential model but needs far higher and more sustained funding. Brands that use laminated pouch packaging, which is rapidly replacing paper boxes and glass bottles as packaging for everything from dates to dog food to detergent, also need to follow suit and develop technologies and markets so these materials can be mechanically recycled in the future.

A 1991 European Union packaging directive set packaging collection goals for all members, which is one reason E.U. member states tend to have far better rates than the United States. E.U. members then required it be funded largely by fees on producers rather than taxpayers, a concept U.S. companies have so far prevented from migrating across the pond. 

For companies to be considered truly responsible environmental stewards, they need to absorb part or all of the cost of curbside packaging recycling and share far more substantially in the funding of such systems. With the historic price volatility of commodities, these investments have a reasonable likelihood of paying off, providing a more stable supply of reengineered raw materials, with a hedge against volatility, for future products and packaging. 

It’s hard to see how recycling represents the "worship" of materials. If anything, recycling recognizes, preserves and enhances our ability to provide a decent life for 9 billion people in 2050 using the limited supply of natural resources needed to sustain life on Earth.

And one final sure sign that recycling is profitable  thieves are getting in on the action. Recyclers in New York City estimate they lose $8 million to $10 million annually from stolen cardboard boxes. A reporter estimated thieves poaching cardboard from the loading docks of a Walmart in New Jersey could make $1000 a night. Tierney, it looks like thieves have gotten religion on recycling.